Friday, July 11, 2014

Mother Joan of the Angels (orig. Matka Joanna od Aniolów) [1961]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Filmweb.PL listing* article

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema: [MSP Website] []

Mother Joan of the Angels (orig. Matka Joanna od Aniolów) [1961] [IMDb] []*[] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Jerzy Kawalerowicz [IMDb] []*[] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* along with Tadeusz Konwicki [IMDb] []*[] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* based on the novella* by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz [IMDb] []*[] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*) is an award winning pre-Enlightenment era period piece that would remind American viewers of In the Name of the Rose [1986] or perhaps of the Salem Witch Trials depicted works as Arthur Miller's 1953 stage-play The Crucible.

Though the film is set in a remote village in 17th century Poland, it is based on an incident that took place at an Ursuline Convent in Loudun, France in 1634.  That incident has been also the subject of a book by Aldous Huxley entitled The Devils of Loudun [1952] and a subsequent British horror film The Devils [1971] [IMDb] directed by Ken Russell.  The current Polish film (made before the British one) played recently as part of the series Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema (in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center).

Now on the surface, a film about a convent of apparently demonically possessed nuns and a priest sent over by the Church exorcise them would seem like a strange or even eyes-rolling tendentious film to be made under a Communist regime ("See how stupid and the backward the Catholic Church was (is)...").  On the other hand, the film could be read in almost exactly the same way Arther Miller's play was.  After all, The Crucible was _nominally_ about the 1692-93 Salem Witch Trials but was actually inspired by the 1950s McCarthy Era anti-Communist "witch-hunt" taking place in Hollywood at the time. So ... while nominally (and as certainly explained to the censors...) the current movie was about the Catholic Church of the 17th century (and the censors would hope ... "of the current time" ...) it was made in the context of a Totalitarian (Communist) Regime which was both still quite convinced of its own Truth and (still) quite violently obsessed with maintaining ideological purity ... Hmm...  ;-)

So, in the current film, a priest named Fr. Jozef Suryn (played by Mieczysław Voit [IMDb] []*) is sent by the Church hierarchy to deal with a remote convent of rebellious, indeed "demonically possessed" nuns.  His job was expected to be difficult as the previous priest sent up to deal with the nuns had apparently become "infected" by the same demonic plague that effected the nuns and was subsequently denounced and burnt at the stake by the Church's authorities for witchcraft -- the stake and the pyre still standing quite prominently between the convent and the village that existed just below it.

The villagers, unafraid of the nuns' "possession" and mostly just bemused by the spectacle of watching "the higher ups" -- on one side "dancing" and even somewhat promiscuous nuns, on the other side, far more austere (why? they wonder) Church authorities trying to bring them back into line -- really did not expect Fr. Jozef to fare much better than the previous guy.   Indeed, the village innkeeper (played by Zygmunt Zintel [IMDb] []*) and his rather buxom fortune-telling daughter (played by Maria Chwalibóg [IMDb] []*) tell him as much.  The local priest, Fr. Brym (played by Kazimierz Fabisiak [IMDb] []*), introduced to Fr. Jozef (and to us, the viewers) as he takes two little orphans (or they his?) out to play, past the above mentioned remains of the stake/pyre on which the previous (and failed) Exorcist had been burnt, ALSO tells Fr. Jozef to just be careful and take care of himself.

But Fr. Jozef has a job to do.  So he goes up to the Convent to meet with the Mother Superior, Mother Joan of the Angels (played by Lucyna Winnicka  [IMDb] []*), a smiling nun who freely admits to the priest that she's possessed by eight demons, and even lists them for him.  Further, it's obvious that she doesn't seem to mind (being "possessed").  Hmm...

Now she has some scruples.  When she does fall in love with Fr. Jozef (and _he_ certainly falls for her...) she does not want to give in to _that_ temptation.  So for a good part of the film, the two do castigate themselves and this is the 17th century Catholic Church, so the two are both flagellating themselves (each in their own quarters).  But clearly this can not stand ...

The rest of the film follows.  But it's clear as day 30 minutes into the film that no one is going to "exorcise" anyone (successfully anyway).  So, what's the solution?  Well, what do you think?  Again, like Arthur Miller's The Crucible, this is clearly a film intended for dual interpretation (and a challenge to both groups addressed).

NOTE: The film is available through Facets Multimedia's rent-by-mail service and for purchase on for a reasonable price.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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