Tales of possession run deep through any religious or formerly religious society. They may act as a primitive explanation for madness, a cultural example of the physical manifestation of evil, or, on some occasions, a political tool. Though the horror of these events comes in accounts early enough to be placed in the Old Testament, there exists an intellectual horror of possession that pervades the modern world. Though not explicitly speaking of possession, René Descartes hypothesized an omnipotent “evil demon” thought experiment that may help with our idea of the “self”. The idea goes that this demon may be altering the physical world around us, such that our bodies, our environment, all our sensations, as well as the fundamentals of logic and mathematics may simply be an illusion. Whatever is left, the one thing that we know is still real, is the self; we can think, therefore this thinker is real. That’s Descartes in a (vastly oversimplified) nutshell. The self reigns as the only thing keeping us grounded to what is truly real in this evil-demon-world sense, so what happens when that one safety is taken away? Possession, or its modern correction “madness”, threatens to relieve us of our bodies and possibly our selves through another host. It’s therefore the most personal horror, and Mother Joan of the Angels tackles the intellectual weight of the subject with beauty and ease.
Based on actual reports of possession from a monastery in Loudon, France, Mother Joan of the Angels acts as somewhat of a historical sequel to Ken Russell’s film on the same subject, The Devils, though made ten years before. The church sparked an investigation into the previous priest of Loudon, Father Urbain Grandier, and suspected him of sleeping with the nuns. The entire convent, under a remarkable spell of possession, also accused him of witchcraft for which he would burn at the stake. Mother Joan takes place in the quiet after these events as the demonic nuns continue their spell for the new, genuinely pious Father Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit). He speaks in equal amounts Latin and Polish, thoroughly convinced in the dark power of these demons and his own blessed power of mystical exorcism. Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka) cites Biblical monsters controlling different parts of her body while the nuns act as a sort of chorus to her acts of religious defiance, whirling and dancing as if playful ghosts haunting the cathedral. As Joan wrestles with her dual nature, battling her seductive demons with teary-eyed confessions to Suryn, the priest also undergoes an inward struggle with doubt in his religion, climaxing with a powerful conversation between Suryn and a cynical rabbi (also played by Voit) about the origin and role of good and evil.
The film predates William Friedkin’s The Exorcist in both innocent-maiden-turned-tool-of-darkness tropes as well as its affection for back-bending gymnastic demons. However, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, a student of the renowned Polish Film School, utilized Winnicka’s frantic, nearly supernatural acting as a firm rebelling against the social realist tendencies of his nation’s cinematic past. Under Communist rule, films were made under strict guidelines to appear like those in the USSR: working class issues, straightforward editing, nothing too out-of-line with the Party. Not only does Kawalerowicz’s film deal with highly individualistic material in its exploration of the self and the most personal questions dealing with religion, but it visually breaks free from some of the realist mundanity much of Poland had fallen into. High contrast black-and-white gives the religious scenes a more ethereal tone, as many of Father Suryn’s longing confessions or Latin chants feel ripped straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light or The Seventh Seal. Long tracking shots are mixed with melodramatic close-ups which are then mixed with handheld-POV shots, all to disorient space around the small village as Mother Joan’s possession wreaks havoc on Suryn’s own mind. It’s more attributable to fantasy, psychology, and philosophy than Poland’s cinematic heritage, mostly evident in Suryn’s eyes as he steps out of the tavern, the camera taking his point-of-view, and the familiar muddy French landscape violently shakes and distorts its way into a plane of madness, a realm of losing one’s self.
Unhinged in its camerawork and free to explore the forbidden realms from Poland’s past, Mother Joan would perhaps be labeled chaotic, anarchistic, or (at its worst) cynical. But Kawalerowicz remains admirably centered and reserved, tapping more into Bergman’s contemplative horror than an outlandish ghoul-fest. Dancing, both secular and possessed, wades into the foreground on multiple occasions — its screentime only eclipsed by Father and Mother’s talks of sexuality, piety, and the dogmatic rules that keep them from who they really want to be. The secular-religious divide in the dancing shines through these conversations, as they both peer into the camera — Joan stripped of her demons, Suryn stripped of his religion. Kawalerowicz himself said that the film primarily deals with dogma as a barrier to love, so possession acts as the horrific manifestation of this barrier, driving them both away from their ideal self.
Is Mother Joan of the Angels a cry for secularism even after a Communist rule? Perhaps not. The silent, eerie dancing motions a link between the corporeal and the ethereal: both have the weight of possession. Whether it be doubt or erotic impulse, the characters of Mother Joan fail to trust their autonomy, releasing their identities to the whim of some greater outside force. When Suryn confronts the haggard, doubtful rabbi, it’s as if looking into a mirror (that they’re played by the same actor very much helps): here lies his true self, comfortable with uncertainty, yet wholly distinct from his idea of who Father Suryn is.
Even without our bodies, our planet, or the fundamentals of logic, we know our self to be real. Peering into Father Suryn’s empty eyes as he gazes toward the rabbi, the camera admits that the true horror begins when even that is taken away.