Mother Joan of the Angels, 1961
There is a great amount of history and text surrounding the Possession at Loudon and the death of Father Urbain Grandier in 1634. The priest was one of the many sent to a convent in Loudun, France, where nuns were reportedly possessed by demons. But after confessing to fornication with said nuns (among other things) the poor lad was tortured and burned at the stake.
Mother Joan of the Angels is not only an adaptation of these events, but a haunting tale of ambivalence. It poses a very relevant question for people of faith as well as non-believers: how contagious is conviction, and does it have the power to thrust us beyond reason? This question isn’t directly asked by the subtext, and the director openly referred to the plot as a retold tale of repressed love. While that may be true on the surface, I’d argue that something larger and far less romantic is revealed.
In the film we follow the devout but meek Father Jozef (Mieczylaw Voit). After spending days fasting, praying, and flogging himself, he believes he is ready to take on the most involved task of his profession. He aims to join several other priests in a rural convent to conduct exorcisms on the nuns, who claim and appear to be possessed by demons. Unlike the others (who provide group exorcisms) Father Jozef is assigned to the Mother Superior: Mother Joan of the Angels (Lucyna Winnicka). She also is the first to be affected.
At first Father Jozef is disheartened and easily shaken up. He’s never seen women— much less those of faith— display themselves in such a depraved fashion. The antics of the nuns include exposing themselves and spinning in frenzies. There are several demons that they claim to be at any particular time.
The exorcisms are held publicly in the chapel, and while some see them as a ploy to induce faith in the insolent, others are genuinely disturbed. For Father Jozef, it seems that the best approach is to isolate himself with the Superior in order to drive out her ills.
But this isolation, as was most likely the situation for the priest before him (whom the story is actually derived from), proves to be his biggest misstep. Isolation gives him the space and time needed to do something he’s never been permitted: grow close to the opposite sex. In doing so, he becomes desperately involved.
The romantic element is the first conclusion you jump, but it’s not entirely convincing. Concerning the actual priest(s) in 1634, it is a cheap and shoddy simplification of the issues. Even if “love” were the driving force, there’s no one to argue against the possibility of Christ love and not that of the flesh. This was the message I took away from the film, despite the director’s synopsis.
Father Jozef can naturally find the Superior attractive, and she him. However, there’s an underlying evil at play in the film. At times it comes off like horror. It is easier for me to see the events as religious ideation gone astray, which is always a relevant and present theme in cinema.
The film’s end suggests a bone-chilling allegory on how religious conviction can take on a life of its own in the minds of a believer. Also, how being convinced of the unthinkable can make you do crazy things. Think of Y2K, for example, which sparked a frenzy even in otherwise pragmatic and reasonable people.
Of course, there are several ways of interpreting the work and many contemporary theorists see it as more of a societal statement concerning post-war Poland. Others are quick to compare it to the work of the director’s peers (Andrzej Munk and Andrezj Wadja) in the same context. I’ve read some of these stances, and they’re not so far stretched. However, some are reaching for an absolution where it’s not always necessary to have one.
This is probably the least known film surrounding the events. Others include Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon and Ken’s Russell’s The Devils—the latter of which takes a wholly different and much more fantastical approach.
If you’re looking for obscure films from Poland’s “Golden Age,” I highly recommend Mother Joan of the Angels. The director went on to direct Dennis Hopper in Night Tide and do a lot of other interesting projects, but none are so alive and enticing as this film. For stories encased in theism and madness, it seldom gets any creepier.
Originally published for Amoeba Music’s “Movies We Like” blog, Dec. 21st, 2015
“All redemption is in love. Love is as strong as death.”