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Sunday, October 04, 2009

2. Mother Joan of the Angels

"Can you lead a man to God through the devil?"

Matka Joanna od aniolów (Mother Joan of the Angels, 1961)
* * * * *
Dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz
Fright Level: 2/10
Scare Type: Intellectual
Sub-genre: Psychological horror, possession, demons (prefigures less subtle nunsploitation_.

This was listed on the IMDB as a horror film, though I'm not sure it exactly qualifies, or at least 95% of the film doesn't. Not as well known as the other film which covers the same incident, Ken Russell's infamous The Devils, made a decade later, Mother Joan takes place after the events depicted in Russell's film. The handsome priest has been burned at the stake, and in his stead, Father Joseph Suryn has been dispatched to drive the eight devils out of the revered mother superior at a possessed and isolated convent. Joseph has lived his entire life in a monastary, he flagellates himself, cuts his bread so thin that he won't be able to tell he's eating food; he has the ascetic lifestyle down, but has no idea of the outside world. "Poor, poor lamb," the worldly barmaid expresses to him as she tells his fortune in the film's first scene.

Arriving at the village, Joseph has discovered that the church has become the location for some of the exorcisms. The priests have figured that it can't be a totally bad thing since the church is filled, and tourists are even arriving; though most are there to see the possessed nuns, and some, like a count have arrived to take advantage of the nuns new found promiscuity. Most readings of this film are sexual. But I think that is too simplistic, and not quite correct, especially since the film suggests something about Father Joseph's sexuality early on not noted in any reviews I've read. To me, this is more about gender and power relationships in institutions. It is apparent that the film is establishing that this is a psychological manifestation; that Mother Joan is reacting against the patriarchy, and as suggested in her last scene with Joseph, that now that she is possessed she has fame and power. However, Joan (played magnificently by Lucyna Winnicka) demonstrates violent physical contortions and changes in her voice enough to unsettle and make us wonder if we should consider more supernatural forces at work.

This is a deep, layered film, full of allusions and metaphor and on the same level with the most profound of films. It's secondary characters are excellent foils to the two main characters, who in reality, don't do a whole lot. There is powerful imagery and visual foreshadowing, and the ending sequence with a silent bell tolling is astonishing. It is an art film; deliberate pace, stark contrast, masterful use of space, but a restless one at that, somewhere in between early Pasolini, early Tarkovksy, and mid-period Bergman, but it also features a healthy amount of motifs from the Polish New Wave (a terrific and tense visual scene with laundry reminiscent of Ashes and Diamonds). And it is impossible to watch the film without thinking that this is about Poland's history as much as it is about possession (mass-hysteria, inner demons, refusal of traditional patriarchy, the wasteland imagery, the Rabbi's explanation for what demons are is especially telling).

But on a spiritual level this is a horror film. There are no easy solutions to the problems created by the physical existence of evil in the film. Is it an inherent part of human nature? Is it a creation of God? It is quick to remind us that the earth is the devil's domain. But what is the solution to any of those possibilities? And this is where the film gets to the heart of the demonic fascination and the horror narrative: Father Joseph and Mother Joan both seek knowledge, but that knowledge comes at a price. In many instances this film references The Fall, and suggests that Original Sin may be an ongoing and repeated occurrence. The Rabbi rhetorically asks Father Joseph that if he really wants to know about demons, there's really only one way to find out. The final sequence of the film quells any doubts that this film does classify as a horror film, yet still remain ambiguous enough to demand further interrogation.This is a difficult film to find, and deserves a DVD release through someone like Criterion. But if you have a chance see it. It's a difficult film but one that promises to be revelatory as well.

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