Mother Joan of the Angels

01/01/2012

Poland / 1961 / Polish & Latin

Directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz

With Lucyna Winnicka, Mieczyslaw Voit, Anna Ciepielewska

Still from 'Mother Joan of the Angels'A priest lies on the floor, face down, motionless. After a few minutes he rises, having done prostrating himself before god for the moment. Father Suryn does this habitually; perhaps he has had an impure thought, or an impatient urge, or a nagging thought that needed banishment. This meek and pious man has come to this place – it may be a village, a scattered rural settlement, or a vast nothingness – to help the nuns of an isolated convent rid themselves of demonic possession that has caught on among them like a wildfire in the past six months. Their mother superior, Joan (like the Maid of Orléans, or the female pope of legend) is the worst afflicted, as her body acts as a sounding-box for the voices of demons.

At the inn where the father is staying are a mangy group of locals who are not as fearful of what the nuns do in the name of Satan as they are of what the clergy does in the name of god. There is the irrepressibly bawdy innkeeper, the gentle barmaid, the hopeful squire, and the hunch-backed church assistant Kaziuk, who gets to see much of the goings on at the convent. Occasionally there is also one of the nuns, the youthful Margaret, who is apparently the only one without a problem. No, her indiscretions are much more slight, and consist mainly of coming down to the pub to enjoy a bit of alcohol and song. An aristocrat on horseback also appears, around the same time as Suryn’s arrival, with an eye for Margaret

Public displays of possession seem to happen every Sunday for those who show up. Led by Joan, the women show poise, and attract people who want to vicariously enjoy that poise being broken. The nuns play the part that is now expected of them, an impassioned show for an audience; they scream and writhe when the priest sprinkles holy water on them. The priests’ attempts at exorcism seems more like an antagonism, causing Joan to go into a rather gymnastic display of possession but clearly not doing much to help. The men restrain her, she asks god for forgiveness; they are each playing a part that they enjoy. Afterward, Suryn goes to his room and self-flagellates, taking penance for feeling attracted to Joan.

While the other women may be merely cashing in on the collective hysteria, Suryn is convinced that Joan is the real deal. How else could a woman make herself seductive to a man so self-denying? By the time their first face-to-face meeting is through, she has evidently made him fall (how far, it is unclear) because both are in separate corners of the room whipping themselves on their backs.

Still from 'Mother Joan of the Angels'Suryn, at this point totally doubts his own abilities, goes to a rabbi for guidance, one who subjects the situation to a deeper analysis than the priest likely could. Perhaps it is not the devil – the rabbi points out to him – “but a lack of angels.” In the absence of something positive, they accentuate the negative, creating meaning or purpose of a sort where they had looked and only found a dull void. Satan must be a very busy man, after all, and even with eight incarnations floating around, probably would have neither time nor inclination to possess the head of an isolated convent in such a bleak backwater as this.

The priest, his righteous sense of duty heightened by his setbacks, has the local men construct a wooden grid to stand between Joan and himself. But he is essentially commissioning his own martyrdom, for it is a St. Lawrence’s grill upon which the woman will roast him with her terrifying gaze. He must still want to see her face, otherwise he would have brought in a solid partition. But perhaps he built it to keep himself back, imprisoning the woman in the process – Western morality writ large. Suryn urges her to “be good like a child” and to “be happy like a child,” but she cannot return to that state. Her religion demands that she be good, faithful, and anonymous. “If one can’t be a saint, it’s better to be condemned,” she tells him. She is on a crusade for recognition, good or bad, of her individuality, and this seemed the most obvious avenue in her current situation.

She has found a way for her self-expression to flourish within the strictures of social construct. It is an ingenious way of getting out of having to worship male symbols in a repressive religious environment. As for the men around her, they want to believe in the hocus pocus because otherwise they might have a free-thinking woman on their hands. The condescending pity that other characters have for Joan feels more like a comment on contemporary views of women, rather than medieval ones that would still identify them as the originators of sin.

The song of Antosia, the barmaid, is one of the first sounds that we associate with Suryn when he arrives at the inn, and it recurs throughout the film. At first it sounds like a Diana-song of the lute that accelerates into a chaste dance. However it comes to signify temptation, surrounded by intimations of that particular sin, one to which few of the characters seem disposed. Nonetheless they delight in sitting around at the pub and using innuendos. It is suggested early on that she used to be a nun in the convent. Later we see sitting by the window and staring longingly at the church across a field, as though longing to see iniquity again from the other side. The song, which more or less constitutes the film’s score (along with the ringing of the nuns’ chorus throughout the convent – both being diegetic), by the end has come to sound lugubrious or even hostile, a devil’s lullaby that people play to themselves to help ignore the horror of things they cannot control.

Still from 'Mother Joan of the Angels'There seems to be this widespread self-delusion over the nature and causes of the women’s behavior. Father Garniec, who was put to death before the story takes place, the people believed to be a sorcerer because of his fraternizing with the women of the convent. His children, presumably born to one of the nuns, are in the care of Father Brym, who bought into the sorcerer story, or at least thought it a convenient reason to burn the man. At the same time, Brym characterizes the women’s chronic possessions as a show of religious histrionics to impress the townspeople. “Perhaps that’s how saints are made,” he remarks to Suryn, painting it all as a theatrical spectacle. The people let their values rest in the comfort of an external duplicity, while at the same time recognizing sleight of hand when it is apparent.

If he sounds rather on the cynical side, Suryn is his antithesis, admitting to not knowing anything about the sins of the world, having virtually grown up in the cloister. None of the other characters is entirely jaded (most are sarcastic or darkly comedic) and so none provides an adequate counterweight to his pure naiveté, making him seem all the more imbalanced and solitary as a result.

The perpetual tonic throughout the scenes is unease, felt at a nearly subliminal level. The camera rarely stays stationary, with an unstable line of vision that notches down or up as characters move to change where they are situated. Images are composed piecemeal, usually within a single shot, with sudden pans down to a character’s hands or with a previously unseen figure swaying into the frame. The camera seems attracted to motifs of blankness (such as the back of a nun’s white habit as she faces away) only to subvert those spaces by opening a fault line of expression (such as when she turn her face to look in our direction). A dry landscape is sure to be cut through by a passing traveler, gliding across the desolate frame.

It is precisely the film’s complete wading-in of its more generic materials, not to mention encompassing starkness, that make it a roaring success. Because it can navigate with standard-issue religious images, particularly that which at first blush seems dreadfully static, Mother Joan of the Angels finds power in familiarity, much more than if it were an all-out desecration of convention. It achieves its alteration by way of light and energy – light to bring solidity to iconography, and to hollow out poignantly vast spaces; energy to animate the pallid faces. As a result, the allegorically flat terrain that it traverses acquires a real form that feels independent of expectancy and reasoning. People’s various subtleties help them emerge as psychologically complex while at the same time filling the positions of caricatures.

Certainly there are moments that seem overburdened (and thus transfer that feeling to the audience): matching reaction shots of Suryn’s face and then the rabbi’s (both characters played by the same actor – the rabbi symbolizing a rational side to the priest’s conscience), the fallen nun Margaret’s hysterical response to having been seduced and abandoned. But these weak points are fleeting, never long or horrendous enough to lose the film its footing.

Still from 'Mother Joan of the Angels'Throughout the strictly nominal examination of morality, the film actually has none, and is free to take ruinous veers into thorny reaches or merely bask in delicious suggestiveness. Like the appearance of the nuns, it cultivates itself as an exercise in rigor – overpowering geometry, pure celluloid, total contrasts, etc. – lean and focused, but belies itself through its every motion, and is in a way possessed, its unlawful qualities masked by a foundation of powdered perfection. Transubstantiating rather than transgressing orthodoxy, and with deference to Dreyer, director Kawalerowicz fashions an inimitable cinematic experience that manages a complexity of philosophies while still supporting the great, bulbous mass of western religious symbolism. At bottom a valorization of individuality, it is also a horror story of the deformations that individuality can take on under tight repression, refusing to stay lidded. In other words: religion is one of the targets, but surely can’t be the only one.

The priests at the monastery have the church bells ring every day, giving hope to  wanderers who are outside in the surrounding wilderness. This way the priests can announce themselves, and announce that their way is right. But why do men keep church bells sounding day and night? While it is because of their fear of god, more specifically, they fear the evil on Earth that god created – that which is unknown outside of them, and possibly within as well. Like the pan-pipes or the lute, the bells are a form of music in the darkness, a way of fending off darkness and all that one is unwilling to contemplate. A creature like Suryn, who believes that he carries all the light he needs within him, is all the more surprised, fearful, even destructive, when he realizes his will is not ironclad. Eschewing emotion, believing in nothing but god, he has not the necessary barriers that most mortals have to keep corruption from their hearts. Freedom is more frightening for him than for anyone who inhabits earthly squalor.

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