Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961
Starring: Lucyna Winnicka, Mieczyslaw Voit
“Being possessed pleases me. It is me who opens my soul to the demons.”
Ken Russell's The Devils is not the only film adaptation of the story of the possession at the Ursuline convent in Loudon. In 1961, Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz (Night Train, The Hostage of Europe) made a film based on a novella of the same name by writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Mother Joan of the Angels aka Matka Joanna od Aniołow aka The Devil and the Nun. Instead of focusing on the trial and execution of Father Grandier, Kawalerowicz’s film follows the events after this, the four subsequent years of possession for Mother Joan and her convent. A priest, Father Suryn, travels to Mother Joan’s isolated convent to investigator the possession allegations after Father Grandier’s death. Suryn develops a deep connection with Joan and is determined to save her soul, regardless of the cost to his own.
Suryn’s character is based on a real priest, one written about in a lengthy section in Huxley’s book on Loudon. Huxley calls him “a victim of neurosis,” and this film will likely interest fans of possession films where the victims of various neuroses are typically female. It certainly makes an interesting counterpoint to The Devils, feeling somewhat like a sequel even though it was made ten years prior.
With incredible performances from Lucyna Winnicka as Mother Joan and Mieczyslaw Voit as Father Suryn, Mother Joan won a Special Jury Prize at the 1961 Cannes Festival, but was otherwise ignored by critics and audiences. This quiet, starkly beautiful and tragic film is almost an inverse of Russell’s classic. It is disturbing, but for very different reasons. In an interview with KinoEye, Kawalerowicz explains that this film “is a love story about a man and a woman who wear church clothes, and whose religion does not allow them to love each other... The devils that possess these characters are the external manifestations of their repressed love.”
Mother Joan is not a political film. It is, somewhat like The Devils, a film about the difficulty of navigating between good and evil. Possession has become the only way to express identity and give room to the inner world of sexual fantasy that has been repressed for so long in Joan and the sisters, as well as Suryn. With that said, both the sexual content and the possession scenes are extremely restrained, despite scenes of exorcism, self-flagellation, and death. Kawalerowicz excels with simple black and white shots, such as one scene of the nuns lying on the floor around the altar like so many crosses. Doubles, reflections, mirror images and shadows abound in the film, along with some surreal exorcism sequences where the nuns seem float as they walk along in trance states and are visually compared with birds in flight.
Mother Joan has a small cast, limited locations and a subtle, hymn-focused score. Without Kawalerowicz’s masterful cinematography and grasp of style, this would probably have felt like a theatrical production. This haunting, eerie and understated film is a meditation on repression, love, faith, and madness and, like The Devils, deserves a critical resurgence. It is available on DVD from Second Run cinema.