Well, it's finally here, having been lost in the black hole of my local sorting office for nearly two weeks. I'd been chomping at the bit for this one to arrive because I'd just watched Night Train from the Polish Cinema Classics box set and was highly impressed. Previously, and without any knowledge of the directors work I'd been attracted to the subject matter of Mother Joan of the Angels but was put off by the well known poor quality of the source material of Second Run's original 2005 release.
So, the first thing to say is how very impressive is the quality of this new restoration. Michael Brooke is right to point out in a comment to one of the other reviews that it, and indeed all three reviews, refer to the previous release and not to the restoration. I'm surprised to find that I'm the first to comment on this excellent new package.
To start in reverse order, as it were, and because I've already mentioned MichaelB I will point out the exceptionally good booklet and his forensically researched and apparently effortlessly concise biography of the directors life and works. Full marks, sir! Equally distinguished is Dr Sorfa's analysis of the Loudun source material and the other artistic works it has inspired.
Next comes MichaelB's appreciation, a 21 minute video, liberally illustrated with film clips. This kind of appetite wetter has always appealed to me as a warm up act to the main event, but this one carries a 'spoiler warning' because it reveals many key scenes. Such concerns have never bothered me since a detailed understanding or knowledge of the content of a film has never diminished my experience of seeing a film itself. I have noticed that such spoiler issues do seem to vex participants of the Amazon reviews, so heaven knows how such people fair when it comes to films with well known story-lines such as The Gospel According to Matthew, perhaps they watch in the expectation that it will end differently this time. Sorry, I digress.
Now, as for the film Mother Joan of the Angels, the restoration is magnificent and the original B & W cinematography is flawless in terms of technical expertise as well as composition. The nuns passing through the frame from dark to light and Mother Joan's first appearance in the refectory are just two examples of powerful diagonal compositions. While other scenes, particularly in the inn with the interaction of various characters, are the equal of Bergman's mediaeval films like The Virgin Spring. Even more interestingly for me is Kawalerowicz powerful visual technique of progressing the narrative through camera set-ups which cut seamlessly between consecutive shots describing an objective, subjective-object, subjective view point. Murnau achieves a similarly complex mise en scene in Sunrise, whether by design or accident it's debatable, in the extraordinary tracking shot when the man walks over the marshes to his rendezvous with the woman from the city.
In the case of Kawalerowicz it is undoubtedly by design: for example, at the beginning of the film the priest is in his room at the inn and there follows this sequence of shots, 1- he is standing against the wall [objective], 2 - (noises off) he turns and looks directly into, and walks towards, the camera [subjective-object], 3 - a cut reveals the object of his attention, the window, it opens to reveal the scene below [subjective]. Our initial shock and unease when he looks directly into the camera is soon superseded by a sense of relief once it is revealed that he is looking at the window and not at us, after all. At once such a shot emphasizes the deeply voyeuristic nature of our gaze and asks the question, exactly how does one determine the truth of these events that he, the priest and us the viewer have come to witness.
However, in the scene where the priest visits the rabbi I found Kawalerowicz's visual technique rather less well realised due to a lack of fluidity in the editing. Nevertheless, it's an interesting sequence in part because both characters are played by the same actor, which probably accounts for the lack of fluidity, but mainly because this exchange sets the priest on the trajectory of his deadly denouement.
One last observation, Kawalerowicz's Mother Joan of the Angels takes place in an apparently devastated wasteland separating the convent from the inn and with the chard stake between, at which Grandier has already been dispatched. This wasteland is more than reminiscent of the devastated landscape revealed by the crane shot at the end of Ken Russell's The Devils and is perhaps an indication that when the old codger, possibly with a twinkle in his eye, told Mark Kermode that Mother Joan of the Angels was 'alright', he was being somewhat disingenuous, after all it's clearly a masterpiece.