"Maybe there are no demons. It's only a lack of angels."
France, in the 17th century, witnessed one of the worst atrocities perpetrated by humankind. A popular and openly libertine priest, Father Urbain Grandier of Loudun, known for his philandering ways, was accused of witchcraft and commerce with the Devil. A group of Ursuline nuns, led by the Mother Superior, Jeanne of the Angels, claimed to have been possessed by demons, owing to being seduced and corrupted by Grandier, who was ultimately convicted, tortured and burned alive at the stake. Legend has it that the whole incident was purportedly an organized witch-hunt, to oust the unorthodox priest, with Mother Jeanne's personal grudge against Grandier and an irrefutable evidence of possession, providing a strong advantage.
This story has been the subject of various literary works and plays, also adapted by English filmmaker Ken Russell in his controversial masterpiece, "The Devils" (1971). Polish filmmaker Jerzy Kawalerowicz's "Mother Joan Of The Angels" (1961), although released ten years earlier, is somewhat of a quasi-sequel to Russell's film. Albeit with character names slightly altered, Kawalerowicz's film is loosely based on events following Grandier's execution.
The nuns at the notorious convent are still supposedly under the influence of the demons, exhibiting hysterical traits, and spitting blasphemous ramblings. With exorcisms already in progress, although with little success, another priest, a specialist, Father Józef Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit) is called upon to take up the challenging task. Following interactions with the curious local folk, including patrons of a nearby inn, the nuns, and more importantly, a startling face-off with Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka), Father Suryn finds himself grappling with his own faith, conflicted by the questionable veracity of Mother Joan's claims, and tormented by his own undeniable attraction to Mother Joan.
Despite directly following the events in Russell's film, "Mother Joan Of The Angels" is a far subtler version in contrast to "The Devils". While the brazen, scandalous depiction of the madness and hysteria of Russell's film is missing here, Kawalerowicz's fairly restrained approach renders a darker and more meditative tone to the proceedings, and what results is a film with a distinctively bleak, tense atmosphere, and aptly so. It is akin to an eerie calm following a deadly storm, with its desolate surroundings and the burnt remains of a carnage serving as horrific reminders of a black chapter in the history of the town; its baffled inhabitants haunted by the ghosts of a terrible episode, still questioning the truth about what really happened.
Without being too unabashed about it, Kawalerowicz manages to shrewdly attack and expose the hypocrisy of organized religion with masterful writing of scenes, comprising of philosophical musings, riveting confrontations and intelligently composed, symbolically heavy imagery. Meticulously in control, and not swaying towards preachiness, Kawalerowicz offers plenty to chew on about the tenets of orthodox religious practices.
Having very human, amorous feelings of desire and carnal needs is a sin, and a work of the devil, they say. So is it that, in a way, God created the Devil, for apparently it is His teachings that direct followers to repress their natural desires? What sort of a religion asks a human to stop being human? Some individuals devoting themselves to serve God are disallowed from having simple human, sensual feelings, and if they do, they are said to be possessed by an evil force!
And what about the unspeakable evil unleashed upon the priest who was burned, by these servants of God? A close look at the circumstances leading to the Loudun possessions do reveal that the priest was burned at the stake as a result of insane jealousy of one woman, an evil that was born out of repressed, unrequited desire, perhaps.
One of the film's highlights is a powerful conversation between Father Suryn and a Rabbi, also played by Mieczyslaw Voit, symbolically incorporating the theme of duality, perhaps hinting at the ambivalence of religious teachings and at the same time conveying that essentially all religion is the same and yet at conflict within or with each other. A near delirious Suryn addressing himself in the mirror, believing to have been possessed, also hints at the two-faced nature of man-made religion. It is interesting that the first frame of the film shows Father Suryn lying face down on the ground and filmed in an angle that makes his profile resemble an inverted cross.
With the theme of demonic possessions and exorcism, the horror quotient is not far behind and the sequences of the ritual are terrifying to say the least. But the first meeting between Mother Joan and Father Suryn almost rivals it in that department and ends with a chilling note while still retaining the ambiguity surrounding the existence of a supernatural force.
The performances are superlative. Mieczyslaw Voit portrays his crisis of faith and self-doubt with an earnestness that rivals Gunnar Björnstrand's performance in Bergman's masterpiece, "Winter Light" (1963). Lucyna Winnicka embodies Mother Joan with an impeccably versatile performance, although for someone who has seen Vanessa Redgrave's mind-blowing freaky hunch-back act in "The Devils", this reviewer finds himself preferring that by a significant margin.
A recurring motif in the film is of the ringing church bells, for those who are lost on their journeys. Beyond the literal purpose of the bell is some potent symbolism that comes alive in the very final shot of the film, with the close-up of the ringing bell against the sound of Mother Joan and spurned Sister Malgorzata (Anna Ciepielewska) sobbing together. This haunting audiovisual juxtaposition speaks volumes of how these poor souls feel lost in their respective emotional journeys and misfortunes, brought about by the beliefs they embraced and eventually imposed upon them in the ruthless world of organized religion in a male-dominated, Godless universe.