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Night Train, Mother Joan of Angels

Pociag, 1959
[Night Train/Baltic Express]

NiemczykNight Train opens to the eerie sound of a soulful and atmospheric vocal melody against an acute overhead shot of a busy train station. On an overnight train bound for a seaside resort, an agitated man named Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk), oddly obscured behind a pair of sunglasses, approaches the conductor (Helena Dàbrowska) to explain that he has neglected to bring his ticket for a first class accommodation on the departing train, but is willing to re-purchase tickets for the two remaining shared cabin berths in a gentlemen-only sleeper car in order to be able to board the already crowded holiday train and have a private compartment all to himself. Dispensing with the transactional formality of obtaining physical tickets after paying his fare, Jerzy quickly retreats to the cabin only to find a lady's purse on the bed. The owner, an attractive young woman named Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), claims to have purchased her ticket for the upper berth of the sleeper compartment from a travel agent and had not been advised of the restriction, nor did she check in with the conductor in order to validate her ticket. Marta refuses to vacate the cabin despite the conductor's stern order, but rather than perpetuate the disturbance, Jerzy acquiesces to her intransigence and convinces the conductor not to pursue the matter further. Nevertheless, the seemingly mysterious and evasive passengers, each hoping to find privacy for the duration of their trip, cannot escape the claustrophobia of the environment around them, as Marta's obsessed, rejected lover, Straszek (Zbigniew Cybulski) follows her aboard the train, and Jerzy's enigmatic behavior draws the flirtatious attention of a lawyer's neglected wife (Teresa Szmigielówna) along with the scrutiny of other passengers who begin to who begin to speculate on the identity of the elusive murderer profiled in the late edition newspaper.

Night Train is a taut, compelling, and insightful psychological portrait of emotional need, hysteria, and mob behavior. Using acute angle shots, high contrast lighting, and narrow, claustrophobic framing, Jerzy Kawalerowicz creates an unnaturally heightened sense of environment and perceptional acuity that reflect the passengers' subconscious duress and sublimated emotions: the visually occluded, odd angle shot as Jerzy enters the compartment; the birds eye view of the opening sequence that is repeated in the image of the passengers encircling a suspect by an open field graveyard; the consecutive episodes of mirrored reflections cast against the train window, first of the lawyer's wife, then of Marta, that figuratively reveal their innate loneliness, confusion, and feelings of abandonment; Straszek's desperate and reckless attempt to gain Marta's attention and sympathy. By modulating the innocuous and lighthearted tone of the holiday-bound train excursion to present a sinister manifestation of base human instincts and the darkness of the soul, Kawalerowicz further illustrates the often destructive myopia, persecution, and skewed perspective that results from a collective mentality. In the film's haunting and metaphoric denouement, a priest replaces a fallen graveyard cross that had been used as a weapon of violence: a solemn reminder of the human need for compassion and atonement in an environment of fear and vengeance.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Matka Joanna od aniolów, 1961
[Mother Joan of Angels/The Devil and the Nun]

Voit/WinnickaA gaunt, weary priest named Father Joseph Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit) arrives at a quaint village inn to rest for the evening, eating his scant portion of bread alongside a bawdy, drunken patron named Wolodkowicz (Zygmunt Zintel) who is quick to ridicule his asceticism. The voluptuous barmaid, Adwosia (Maria Chwalibóg), goaded by Wolodkowicz into foretelling the priest's future, provides two cryptic predictions for Father Suryn: that he will meet a maiden who is a mother, and that his beloved will be humpbacked. The portentous words begin to take on relevance when Father Suryn is revealed to be the fifth priest to be dispatched by the church to a remote convent on the outskirts of town. A cloistered order of Ursuline nuns are reported to be possessed by demons, purportedly under the influence of an executed, morally flawed secular priest named Father Grandier. Earlier, the convent's Mother Superior, Jeanne Belcier (Lucyna Winnicka), commonly known as Mother Joan of Angels, had been instrumental in the charismatic Father Grandier's denunciation and subsequent burning at the stake for charges of using sorcery to subconsciously seduce her while she is asleep - an accusation that is substantiated by other nuns who randomly exhibit similar episodes of inexplicable, primal behavior. Nevertheless, despite Father Grandier's death, the bewitching of the nuns continues to resurface, manifesting through incomprehensible, often violent fits of convulsion, blasphemy, and hysteria. Father Suryn has been assigned to exorcise Mother Joan - the most tormented of the nuns - from the purported eight devils that have taken possession of her physical body in the belief that her salvation will expurgate the entire convent. However, as Father Suryn obsessively struggles to understand the root of Mother Joan's spiritual affliction, he becomes increasingly tormented with own conflicting emotions towards her seemingly irredeemable soul.

Based on the documented possession of Ursuline nuns that led to the burning of Father Urbain Grandier at the stake in Loudun, France in 1634 (that also served as the historical basis for Aldous Huxley's novel
The Devils of Loudun, subsequently adapted for the screen by Ken Russell in The Devils), Mother Joan of Angels is a spare, visually rigorous, and profoundly disturbing exploration of faith, repression, fanaticism, and eros. Jerzy Kawalerowicz employs high contrast lighting, stark chiaroscuro imagery, austere landscapes, and minimal mise-en-scène that meticulously distills the narrative into its essential composition: the arid, desolate fields that lead to the convent and the site of Father Grandier's execution; the image of prostrate cloistered nuns in the chapel that is paralleled against images of birds in flight as Father Suryn and Mother Joan are sequestered to an attic room; the sound of footsteps in an underlit corridor as possessed nuns emerge towards the light, calling out to Father Suryn; the contrasted doppelgänger imagery of Father Suryn seeking guidance from a rabbi (also played by Voit) that is later repeated in his despondent, introspective monologue facing his obscured reflection in a mirror; the sublime final shot of a tolling church bell that intermittently occludes the daylight view from the tower. By exposing the uncertainty, repression, and moral ambiguity that exist beneath the abstinent, dogmatic ritual of institutional religion, Mother Joan of Angels serves as a provocative and haunting portrait of man's eternal spiritual struggle against the indefinable nature of evil, sin, and corporeal existence.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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