Matka Joanna od Aniołów [1961]

04Apr12 – 9 – Matka Joanna od Aniołów [Mother Joan of the Angels] (Jerzy Kawalerowicz: 1961)

Although based on the true story of Satanic possession/mass sexual hysteria in the Ursuline convent of Loudun in the 1630s, MOTHER JOAN OF THE ANGELS (“Matka Joanna od Aniołów”, 1961) takes place after the events dramatized in Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS. Father Grandier (here Garniec) failed spectacularly in his attempts to exorcize the demons and was burned at the stake for his trouble recently enough that the stake he was burned on still stands, a threatening twisted tree of charcoal. And the two kids he fathered are still young kids. Now it’s humble, pious, unworldly, but young and fetching Father Suryn’s turn to join the four remaining priest-exorcists left over from his predecessor’s stay to rid the sisters of their devils.

I don’t want to go into any specifics, but the film is (mostly) beautifully shot in stark black and white and the actors are usually framed in huge interior spaces devoid of ornament or in the treeless outdoors; they only look hemmed in and confined when they’re at the inn and attached stable a short distance away from the convent. (The inn is apparently convenient for tourists to stay at when they attend exorcisms at the convent for entertainment.) Although he’s not prone to lurid excess in quite the way the irrepressible Ken Russell was, Jerzy Kawalerowicz does have a way of making every half smile look like a smirk, every cocked eyebrow a come on, and there are sequences meant to allude to sex that seem to be almost the reverse: sex masking something else.

All of the acting is good, but Lucyna Winnicka as Mother Joan brilliantly switches on a dime between reserved, pious nun and demon-possessed slut. She reminds me of a Hollywood actress but I don’t know who. A young Anne Bancroft, perhaps? But it’s Mieczysław Voit who walks away with the picture with his tour de force performance as Father Suryn. I haven’t even mentioned that everything about the film from the acting to the sets is unmistakably influenced by post WWII Polish avant garde theater; that’s a huge plus for me but may not be to everyone’s taste. Nor have I mentioned just how gorgeous I thought the opening credits were: the typography is a knock out, superb. If I were cautious I’d say this is a great film. But I’m not. 9/10. [4/4/12]

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