Polish Cinema: Mother Joan of the Angels (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961, Poland)

                Mother Joan of the Angels is a fascinating film from 1961 based on the 17th Century Loudun possessions. The Loudun possessions also served as the basis for Ken Russell’s 1971 campfest The Devils, although here the subject matter is treated with a much more restrained. The particular adaptation director Jerzy Kawalerowicz draws from is a novella by the great Polish writer Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz. Mother Joan is interesting not only for being perhaps one of the first films to touch on theme of demonic possession and exorcisms, but also for being possibly the first Polish horror film. The Polish horror tradition is minor compared with many other countries, but still features an impressive lineage including the films of Andrzej Zulawski as well as Agnieszka Smoczynska’s recent The Lure.

                Mother Joan is beautifully shot in black-and-white by noted Polish cinematographer Jerzy Wojcik (Eroica, Ashes and Diamonds). The cinematography coupled with the historical setting evokes Sven Nykvist’s work on The Seventh Seal. There is an incredible attention to composition with the film’s mise en scene, and the priest’s black robes form a contrast to the nuns’ white robes. The spare set design is often used to create some incredible images, such as when all of the nuns begin writhing on the floor simultaneously.

                Thematically, the film examines the crisis of faith that occurs when Father Jozef Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit) attempts to confront Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka). This attempted confrontation eventually turns into attraction, and soon it is not clear who is in fact the person possessed. Father Suryn even ends up meeting with a rabbi to confront this crisis of faith, a scene which stands out in the film. The film’s violent finale also stands out. Mother Joan unsurprisingly generated some controversy at the time of its release, and still stands out for its singularity of vision.


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