Mother Joan of the Angels (1961)

“I don’t know the world, so what can I say about it?”

‘Mother Joan of the Angels’, directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz in 1961, is a Polish psychological drama set in the seventeenth century. A priest visits a convent of nuns who are suffering from a generalised case of demonic possession. Once there he investigates, is drawn towards the abbess, Mother Joan played by Lucyna Winnicka, and then finally succumbs to the psychosis suffered by the nuns. Despite its dramatic subject, this movie is surprisingly subtle. The historical event that it is based on (a case of mass hysteria in Loudun in 1634) was also the inspiration for Ken Russell’s 1971 movie ‘The Devils’, but ‘Mother Joan’ is as understated and elusive as Russell’s film is excessive and direct. This is not to say that Kawalerowicz’s film isn’t unsettling, in fact the subtlety and ambiguity adds to a general sense of unease whilst also increasing a general feeling of repressed sexual tension within the convent. It’s directed with imagination and precision, Kawalerowicz’s recreation of the past is reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s ‘Andrei Rublev’, realistic but also suggestive of the philosophies of the time; as much about the mental and intellectual landscapes of the past as about the costumes and settings. There are also moments that seem to have entered popular culture, in particularly the horror genre, for example one particularly disturbing action of the possessed Mother Joan that is a precursor to a scene in ‘The Exorcist’. It’s ahead of its time, brave and stylish, horrific in an indirect way and a presentation of an historical event that manages to be both realistic and symbolic.

Would I recommend it? Yes – the obvious pairing for this film would be ‘The Devils’, buit I’d also suggest either ‘Andrei Rublev’, for its approach to history, or ‘The Exorcist’, a film that occupies the other extreme of the subject matter.

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