Mother Joan of the Angels – Jerzy Kawalerowicz and repression in “Devil Possession” films. (film review)

I wanted to make a film about human nature and its innate reaction against repression and laws which are imposed on it.

Jerzy kawalerowicz

In the history of films about demonic possession, probably the three most important are The Exorcist, The Devils and Mother Joan of the Angels.  Interestingly, both The Devils and Mother Joan of the Angels are based on the same true story Adauls Huxley entitled The Devils of Loudan documented in a non fiction account in 1952. Of course Mother Joan of the Angels is a Polish film, and therefore far less widely known – though it has still managed to achieve some notoriety and is one of the most popular Polish films of the 1960’s in circulation.

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Mother Joan of the Angels is made in 1961,and from my reading it is unlikely that Kawalerowicz had read Huxley’s book. More likely the theories Huxley related in his text were gaining momentum as a universal anyway.  The story of the Loudun Possessions of France in 1634, was a well known one.  Ken Russells work, The Devils that was to come out in 1971 is, however closely adapted from Huxley’s work, and makes this point well known.

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The two more recent films, familiar to most film watches, The Exorcist and The Devils are visceral shocking films that use the theme of sexual repression and demon possession in garish and unsubtle ways. Mother Joan of the Angels is nothing like this however, and in the films early release days, one of the complaints about the film was that the viewer “misses all the good bits.” The most interesting and dramatic aspect of the Loudun Possessions is the time period portrayed in The Devils, when the highly libidinous Priest Urbain Grandier is named as the bringer of demons to the Convent at Loudun where the nuns have become possessed and are acting out in overt sexual behavior  Grandier is burnt at the stake for his crimes and a few months later, an exorcist  Father Jean-Joseph Suryn arrives at the convent hoping to free the Nuns from their possession that did not leave with the death of Grandier.

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The Devils focuses very heavily on the perverse and sexual aspect of the relationship between the Mother Joan and Father Grandier.  Interestingly, Kawalerowicz focuses on the relationship between Mother Joan and Father Suryn. Kawalerowicz film is made a decade earlier, however in keeping the focus on Suryn (with the charred stake where Grandier was burnt constantly in the landscape shots) the central character remains Mother Joan.  The Exorcist, a film that asks the same questions about religious faith and the claims of demon possession, but is not about the Nuns at Loudun, focuses on the character of the Priest who tries to save Regan – although as we all know the imagery of Regan’s possession have become some of the most iconic in the history of film.  A common problem shared by The Devils and The Exorcist is that of intense visuals stealing from the deeper nuances of the story and the examined subtext. Clearly Kawalerowicz wants to avoid this, and so he keeps the extreme actions of the possession off camera, or subtle, minimalist or revealed through metaphor.

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As a result, Mother Joan of the Angels is a visually stunning film that has a seriousness that both the other films lack. It still has the problem of “making real” the wide wild eyes of the possessed, but with Mother Joan of the Angels there are so few “antics” that the possession remains a thing for us, the audience (who are inadvertently taken on the role of the Priest in this way) to make judgments about. Is Mother Joan really possessed?  Has she really infected the other Nun’s in the convent  Is Demon possession real, or is it an antidote to anonymity, mediocrity and the condemnation of life inside a convent that holds no pleasures or notoriety at all?

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These questions are heightened with the aid of periphery characters that pose important questions that interfere with the straight narrative of demon possession that occurs in the other films. Kawalerowicz includes the Rabbi (played by the same actor Mieczyslaw Voit) and in this way externalizes the questions Suryn should be asking of himself.

“Maybe the problem is not demons but the absence of angels.  Mother Joan’s angel has gone ans now she’s left alone with herself. Maybe its only human Nature.” The Rabbi asks.

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The Rabbi then asks the heretical question, “what if Satan created the world… For if the Lord created it, why is there so mch evil in it?”  The Rabbi will complicated matters further by suggesting the demons might be a human issue rather than a supernatural one. He tells Suryn if he wants to know about Demons he should let them inhabit him – or rather – he should get in touch with the demons that haunt his own soul. Suryn answers with a curt “My demons are my business and my soul is my own.”  And yet toward the tragic end of the film, it is this very advice that he will transform to something literal.  The climactic end is not part of the true historical narrative. In the real story Mother Joan is “miraculously” cured and Father Suryn leaves the area and both the humans live long religious lives.

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Another running metaphor is the erotic nature of the relationship between Mother Joan and the Priest Suryn. Mother Joan had a similar relationship with the deceased Father Grandier.  The Devils focuses very heavily on the sexual nature of this relationship. Mother Joan of the Angels externalizes the relationship in a visual representation of the repression Kawalerowicz clearly believes is at the heart of the “problem” of Mother Joan and Her Nuns. This occurs in the sexual fall of the young Nun, Sister Malogorzata  who escapes the convent to have an affair with a travelling Squire who cruelly abandons her after she has given herself. Rather than dwell on the erotic between the protagonists, it is deflected to a side character, again to emphasize the point of the film  rather than use crass imagery to hammer one point home at the expense of all the others.

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All of this written context gives Kawalerowicz permission to make a very beautiful film.  The scenes of the Nuns in their habits are never static.  They are complex costumes, far to brilliant in their white to be real.  Mother Joan (played by Lucyna Winnicka) is too beautiful to describe and her habit off sets this beauty in a way that seems perpetually unholy. Even if the woman were to stand still and look straight ahead, that face and that outfit give off such an erotic vibe that she would certainly be accused of demon possession even if she didn’t claim it.

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The film opens with an image of Father Suryn prostrate on the ground, arms outstretched as if he were imitating Jesus on the cross, which he is doing. Only the camera shoots him from above and upside down, evoking the death of Peter and also a symbol of Satan  The film is rife with these sorts of images, that usually take the breath away with their patient beauty. The texture of a wall comes to symbolize the mental destruction of a Priest. Habits on the washing line, the fragile separation between Priests and Nuns as men and women.

This beautiful film is a must see for all cinema fans. A stunning edition is now out through Second Run DVD.

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