on 9 June 2012
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.
on 7 March 2008
"Mother Joan of the Angels" (= "Matka Jonna od Aniolow") is a strange 1961 film directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, that manages to show the way in which faith, superstition and fanaticism can mix.
The story that this film tells is set in 17th century Poland, and it is, to say the least, unusual. The main character is Father Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit), a priest that arrives to a convent in order to exorcise a group of nuns possessed by the demon. Their leader is the abbess, Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka), a beautiful young woman that seems to embrace the choice of being possessed by the demon, given that she is aware that she cannot be a saint, and would rather be damned than like everybody else. Father Suryn begins to care too much for her, having his faith tested while he strives to save the nuns and not lose his soul in the process.
Even though this film is loosely based on real facts, I think that its real power comes from the subjective way in which the director chose to tell it. When you finish watching this powerful movie, you don't know whether you liked it or not, but you are sure that "Mother Joan of the Angels" is an enduring work of art worth-seeing. Recommended...
on 10 March 2007
An inexperienced priest is sent in to perform an exorcism on the mother superior - with violent & tragic results.
Another long neglected cult classic of Eastern European cinema resurrected by the excellent Second Run DVD label. The story is based on the Loudon case which has fascinated many writers, artists & film makers, notably Ken Russell's infamous 1970s movie The Devils. Mother Joan, being a Polish film from 1960, is rather less lurid than The Devils but may have influenced Russell and possibly Friedkin's Exorcist too. However it should be stressed that, although still shocking and disturbing, Mother Joan is a very austere black & white art-house film & the best comparison would be with Bergman's medievalist epics such as Seventh Seal & Virgin Spring. Cinematically Mother Joan is a great film, beautifully shot & acted, but I'm not sure how seriously to take it - while not exactly "nunsploitation" it teeters on the edge of kitsch - if you are a fan of mad nun movies, from Back Narcissus on, you should check this out! The director claimed it was an allegory of sexual repression (ie Freudian & anti-Catholic) but you can't help but wonder whether it is also an allegory of Polish communism. The DVD includes booklet with informative essay & carries apologies for the very grainy film print but that didn't bother me - just added to the grainy medieval ambience!
on 9 November 2007
"Matka Jonna od Aniolow" (Mother Joan of the Angels) is a creepy film about exorcism in the 17th century. A convent of nuns is troubled by demonic possession, including the Mother Superior, who is possessed by eight demons. The four local priest/exorcists summon the help of another priest specializing in exorcism to help them. What he finds at the convent will be the test of his lifetime as he tries to help them.
The priest feels sympathetic and concern for helping others, but his efforts to exercise the demons are not instantly successful. In his labors, he begins to develop affection for Mother Joan. The priest begins a journey of self-reflection and brings us along on his meditative search for meaning. My favorite part of this search was when he consults a Rabbi, and their philosophical discussion that follows. The way I interpreted the deeper meaning of this movie was that love is the answer.
The fact that "Matka Jonna od Aniolow" (1960) was made in black and white gives it an intensely creepy feeling. There isn't anything gruesome shown, but the nature of the story itself, the spooky feeling of the convent, and the behavior of the possessed nuns create an amazing effect of uneasiness. One could easily place the film in the category of horror based on the suspenseful nature of the film. "Matka Jonna od Aniolow" is an intriguing story and a work of art.
on 18 December 2013
A minimalist, stylish Bergman-esque metaphysical journey of a simple priest to investigate the aftermath of the hell on earth mass hysteria that was the case of the devils of Loudun. This is an original, fictional follow-up Huxley's book. The beautiful restoration showcases the stunning, bleak black-and-white photography. Excellent performances and an almost apocalyptic landscape and vibe will make this film an unforgettable experience.