Friday, June 4, 2010

SIFF, Week Two: Mother Joan of the Angels (Poland, 1961, 110 mins)

I entered SIFF cinema hacking and trying to form words.  Damn pollen allergies.  Luckily, there was a water fountain there, and luckily, my super dry throat did not bother me during the film.

Jerzy Kawalerowicz, the director of this film, died in 2007.  The SIFF staff member who introduced Mother Joan of the Angels told us that he made 16 films (IMDB lists 17) and that she first discovered his work at a Polish Film Festival.  Apparently, he could and did make some rather lousy films, but "when he was on"...

Unfortunately, she also had some bad news to share with us.  We were originally supposed to see a restored 35mm version of the film (on hard drive), but when they opened the box, instead of containing a hard drive, it contained strawberry preserves.  Or were they raspberry preserves?  I really should have my notepad ready to go at the beginning of these films, to catch little tidbits such as this.  She joked that perhaps the people who came out afterwards for the gathering could have some of those preserves (after some of the films, audience members are invited to join the staff at a local coffee shop or bar to celebrate).

Luckily, she had a very high quality DVD version of the movie (and of Night Train, the movie to follow, which also should have been in that box), but she said that anyone who was dissatisfied with the quality of the film could leave the theater within the first ten minutes of the movie and receive a comp ticket for another film.  To my knowledge, no one did, and considering some of the issues I've mentioned concerning other films that I've seen, perhaps using the digital projector over the 35 mm projector (or the hard drive version) may have prevented further problems from occurring.

And what a film it was!  It reminded me of Ingmar Bergman in its subject matter (religion), but not in its camera work.  The use of a mirror reminded me, for some reason, of techniques used by Masahiro Shinoda, though nothing else in the film suggests his style.  Made in 1961, it was banned by the Catholic Church (this according to the SIFF guide), and no wonder, for its subject matter is the possession of nuns by devils.

The movie follows Father Joseph Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit, who also plays the part of the Rabbi) as he arrives at a village where the former priest, Father Garniec, has been burned at the stake for being a sorcerer, and where the nuns in the local nunnery have been possessed by demons.  Father Joseph (as the subtitles list him; on IMDB, his named is spelled "Josef") is the latest in a line of priests who have come to the town to exorcise the demons.  All have met with failure.  Father Joseph soon realizes that Mother Joan of the Angels, the nun in charge of the nunnery, is the most possessed of them all.  If he can drive out the eight demons that are possessing her, then the other sisters might be saved.

In addition to Sister Joan, we also meet Sister Margaret (Malgorzata on IMDB, played by Anna Ciepielewska), who is the only nun not possessed by devils.  She often returns to town and confers with the local beer wench and fortune teller, Antosia (Maria Chwalibog), and her (Margaret's) father, Wincenty Wolodkowicz, who apparently owns the bar.  On one such visit, she meets the handsome Chrzaszczewski (Stanislaw Jasiukiewicz), and begins having thoughts unbecoming of a nun.

The cinematography (in black and white) is gorgeous, the acting is great (though a little campy when the nuns act possessed, but then, how can it not be?), and the camerawork is wonderful.  Kawalerowicz uses static shots, zooms (used when looking out windows, mostly), and a variety of short, medium, and wide shots (and the use of a mirror) in a relaxed and natural way, not calling attention to the techniques used, but using them in a way that is easily recognizable

And then there's the message of the film itself.  When Father Joseph goes to see a rabbi in the hopes of finding out how to cast out the demons, the rabbi says, "Love is at the bottom of everything in this world."  Father Joseph doesn't understand.  The rabbi tries to explain it to him.  When he still doesn't understand, the rabbi casts him out, saying that he doesn't know anything.  Watching this film, I didn't realize that the same actor played both roles.  Is the director saying that the worldly rabbi and the cloistered priest are two sides of the same coin, one Jewish, one Christian, one who knows the world of men and women, one who only knows the world of God?

And indeed, this is why the priests have failed.  "Women were made to suffer, let them suffer," says the rabbi. The men in this film do not understand the suffering of these women, or how women might love Satan more than God, because they do not understand human emotions, which are the ways of the world.  All of their emotions are entwined in God.  Only when Father Joseph tries to understand Mother Joan's personal demons, only when he tries to understand how her pride and wish to be different from the other sisters led to her wanting to be possessed, only when he tries to empathize with her lot in life, is he able to help her, but by doing so, he opens himself up to the same dangers and temptations that she has fallen victim to.

Meanwhile, Sister Margaret is led astray by the dashing Chrzaszczewski, but her suitor leaves her in the morning, and she returns to the nunnery, where she and Mother Joan shed tears over their lot in life.

In short, this film deals with the secular and religious worlds, repressed feelings, and temptation.  At its heart, though, it is about love--how love decides our fate for us, and the choices that we make.  Mother Joan wanted to become a saint.  Since she could not become a saint, she decided to become the opposite.  Father Joseph is a pious man, but it is his love for Mother Joan, not his love of God, that makes him decide to do what he does, and to live with that choice, though it leads to horrible consequences.  Sister Margaret leaves the convent for love, then returns when her love is forsaken.

Love is at the bottom of everything in this world.

5 out of 5.

People in line for Night Train, not realizing that their film has been replaced with preserves.


  1. Sounds very interesting and maybe I'll run into it someday--never heard of this director.

  2. I hadn't either, though I have heard of one of the films he directed, Quo Vadis?, possibly because it was, at the time, the most expensive film made in Poland (according to Wikipedia).

  3. Quo Vadis either as a book or a movie which I never read/saw definitely rings a bill from the green years.

  4. I wonder if this is available on DVD. Seems like the kind of movie I'd like. Good job reviewing it every element in it with honesty.

    Indeed, love is at the bottom of everything in this world. For my love of movies, I'll seek this little film.

  5. It's available over here on DVD. If it weren't, we would have been treated to fruit preserves instead of a movie. ;-)

    I found it interesting that, in the context of the movie, one sees that love is at the bottom of all the evil in this world, as well as all the good.

  6. That sounds like an interesting film! And it cracks me up that someone put preserves in the box! Hahaha! That kind of makes me wonder what that person was thinking...


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