Looks like I have an interest in Polish films about nuns. Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) is a creepy drama, focusing on the sociological and psychological phenomenon of mass hysteria and its interpretation within a religious context as demonic possession. Directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz and based on the supposedly true event of the Loudun possessions, the film’s synopsis is as follows:
Set in the 17th century, a convent in a small town is being visited by high-ranking Catholic official trying to exorcise the nuns supposedly possessed by demons. A local priest has been burnt for creating this condition by sexual temptation of the nuns, especially the Mother Superior who brings on the collective hysteria of the group. There is another young priest who is to help with the exorcism. His first meeting with the convent head, Mother Joan of the Angels, has her seemingly possessed by Satan – she yells blasphemies and incites the priest. She begs the priest to save her and to help her to be a saint. (source)
This film could be considered a follow-up to Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). Both films centre on the historical event of the Loudun possessions, The Devils showing the initial meeting of the charismatic priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) and his interactions with Mother Joan (played by the incomparable Vanessa Redgrave), culminating in Grandier’s execution and one of the more controversial endings of any religious film I’ve seen. Mother Joan of the Angels picks up where The Devils left off, with a convent in disarray as its Mother Superior continues to be haunted by her demons, and her fellow nuns also presenting with symptoms of possession. Mother Joan is played to perfection by Lucyna Winnicka, her crazed eyes and expressive face telling her story. Her performance as a tormented woman who is at once fundamentally good, but influenced by dark forces beyond her control, is magnetic. One might assume that a film like this might be quite cheesy, but there’s no hint of kitsch or cheese in this one. The scenes where possession and exorcism are explored, are truly creepy and genuinely somewhat distressing.
Mother Joan of the Angels is shot beautifully by director Jerzy Kawalerowicz and cinematographer Jerzy Wojcik. The visuals are virtually flawless. The world of the film is shown as a bleak, desolate landscape both inside and outside of the convent, with stark production design that can be contrasted with the more colourful and quirky production design of The Devils. The film certainly makes use of its black and white visuals through lovely use of light, creating texture so that each frame feels alive. Certain scenes are initially shot from the character’s point of view, such as moments where Father Jozef Suryn (played by Mieczyslaw Voit) is entering a new location, or viewing a particularly strange event. This creates some lovely movement within the film, putting us in the perspective of a man coming to terms with some very eerie shenanigans. Some of the visuals feel like you’re floating within a waking dream, particularly when viewing all of the possessed nuns moving around together, with some very dreamlike and disturbing choreography. Visually and creatively, the film is a treat.
Mother Joan of the Angels isn’t necessarily a scary film. But it is an incredibly effective creepy drama about the idea of mass hysteria and the resulting impacts that this can have within a religious context. The film showcases an interesting battle of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’, a psychological and theosophical war, and the man who must resolve this conflict and save the soul of the Mother in question. The story is told in a logical and compelling manner, and the film’s strange and unsettling nature is reflected in its long ruminations on ideas about theology and philosophy. I couldn’t take my eyes away from this one. Definitely recommended for those interested in films about nuns, films about Polish nuns, films about demonic possession, or stellar direction and cinematography.
Watch the trailer here.