A 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.
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