Monday, 21 December 2020

Cult Cinema #33: Counting to Nun, Part Three

Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od Aniołów) (1961)

(Can you actually spoil a historical drama made in 1961? If you can, I do.)

The historical events surrounding the incident of the Loudun Devils have been analysed and fictionalised several times, and while Ken Russell’s version is probably the most notorious for English-speaking film fans, it isn’t all there is. Possibly the most nuanced and interesting version is Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s classic Mother Joan of the Angels (AKA Matka Joanna od Aniołów, 1961) which might predate The Devils by a good decade but concerns itself with what happens next. Like Russell, Kawalerowicz used a fictionalised account as a portal through which he accessed the story; while Russell worked with Huxley, Kawalerowicz adapted Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz’s novel, also titled Matka Joanna od Aniołów, which, like Huxley, used the historical events of seventeenth century Loudun as an allegory for the present.


The historical record has it that the nuns of Loudun continued to claim possession, and became in later years, something of a tourist attraction. Father Jean-Joseph Surin would investigate and write about the case. Eventually the nuns would claim that had been cleansed, and Jeanne des Anges would, although continuing to weather accusations of witchcraft throughout her life, eventually affect the attitude of a sort of living saint, and would eventually write an autobiography, modelled after that of St. Teresa of Avila, which was apparently Iwaszkiewicz’s primary source.

Kawalerowicz’s film, then, is about this period, after Grandier’s execution, where the nuns were still attracting public attention, and subject to the frequent visits of the exorcists who tried in vain to get them to behave like nuns again.

Via Iwaszkiewicz, the action in Mother Joan of the Angels moves East. Instead of the lush countryside of a French Summer, we have the bleak, forbidding landscape of a Polish winter. Rather than a walled post-Renaissance city, the convent is situated by a remote village where, we are told, about half of the people are related to each other. Grandier is renamed Garniec. Jean-Joseph Surin is Jósef Suryn. Mother Jeanne is now Matka Joanna, or Mother Joan.

Changing the setting and the names gives a license for Kawalerowicz to change how the story ends, the better to make a point. We’ve seen a somewhat similar thing happen with The Sacrament, where the filmmaker changes the names and setting to create a new story. But The Sacrament fails so horrendously and so offensively because it assumes that the denouement of Jim Jones’s enterprise, shorn of context or history, makes sense on its own: that film keeps the ending but abandons the beginning. Mother Joan of the Angels keeps the beginning and branches off to a different ending. The ending is perhaps better suited for a dramatic presentation, but it feels true because it depart from a more grounded place.

Truth seems to have been a watchword for Kawalerowicz. Apparently, Mother Joan of the Angels was made at a time when few movies were made in Poland, and movies made in Poland had to be Soviet Realist. Soviet (or Socialist) Realism was an artistic mode that wasn’t always at first glance terribly realistic. Its “realism” was in the ideological realm: visual art in the style idealised the proletariat, and its stereotype is in images of clean-cut, herculean blacksmiths and hard-working, statuesque milkmaids, all defended by beautiful young men in Red Army uniforms.

That’s a reductive summary, admittedly, but Mother Joan of the Angels, while (perhaps perversely) resolute in its realism, is not at all representative of this sort of art. The peasants are earthy and not at all idealised: the barmaid Antosia (Maria Chwalibóg) has a dusting of hair on her upper lip; the innkeeper, Wolodkowicz (Zygmunt Zintel), proud to share a surname with half the village and surpassingly keen to tell you the fact, is a bit of a bore; and Kaziuk the stable groom is a nice enough chap but is also clearly what once would have been described as “a bit simple”.

Kaziuk: Devils don’t care for the likes of us.

These three serve as a sort of Greek chorus, along with the priest’s servant Juraj (Jaroslaw Kuszewski), the action moving from inn to convent and back again, the two locations divided by a barren expanse, its only significant landmark the blackened and sooty pyre on which Garniec the priest was burned alive. This weird, spare geography is a pointer to the formal, theatrical nature of the whole thing, an exercise in duality, centred on Father Jósef (Mieczyslaw Voit) and Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka, in her defining role).


The performances of Voit and Winnicka are mesmerising, and all the more so because of the film’s relentless commitment to showing us what the characters do and say, without any editorialising other than that coming from the mouths of the characters, and even then it trusts you to make your own decisions as to how to interpret the actions and experiences of the principals. It does not patronise. And it’s absolutely riveting.

Jósef is deftly portrayed from the beginning. If apparently severe, he is decent and gentle. The weight of the world sits on his brow. He sees the sorrows around him and they affect him deeply, and chief among them Mother Joan. Lucynna Winnicka’s Joan displays a very different sort of neurosis to Vanessa Redgrave’s Jeanne. She veers from serene beauty to the devilish grinning aspect of a demon. Her eyes are blazing lights. She owns every scene she appears in.

In a lengthy sequence at the heart of the film, we see the nuns troop into the church, ostensibly to be subjected to an exorcism at the hands of a group of priests. The nuns begin to cavort around, spinning and screaming, displaying all the signs of mass hysteria. And of course the exorcism doesn’t take. According to Catholic tradition, the demons who Mother Joan claims to be possessed by are supposed to be subject to the authority of God and His representatives, the clergy. But these demons, who include such dark luminaries as Asmodeus, Gresil, Isacaaron, Leviathan, Balaam and Dog’s Tail, all princes of Hell in Catholic folklore, refuse to listen, and refuse to go.

Jósef doesn’t for one second entertain the notion that these phenomena might have a mundane explanation for one moment, and begins to seek a way to free Joan from her possession. He and the nun converse, and Jósef agonises over how he can save her.

But Joan doesn’t really want to be saved, or at least not on the terms that the priest offers.

Why do this? Let’s just for a moment examine whether Joan and the Sisters might actually have been possessed — just for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s a possibility. Even if devils were real, the nuns’ possession is too neat. They acted possessed on a regular schedule, and for an audience. They claimed to have been possessed by the royalty of Hell, and really, what interest would they have for an archdevil?


Did Joan and the nuns believe they were possessed? Their antics got a man burnt to death. When you’ve gone all-in on a thing and seen it having horrendous, fatal consequences, it’s actually a lot harder to let go of it, because letting go of it will mean that you have to admit to yourself and the world that you have caused something awful to happen for no good reason, and most people can’t bring themselves to do that. It’s a horrific emotional adjunct to the Sunk Cost Fallacy, that human failing where the more resources you’ve wasted in a thing, the harder it is to let go. And the harder you hold on to a thing, the more natural it is to get yourself into a place where you talk yourself into believing it, regardless of whether you know it’s a lie. Faith has levels; belief is a choice. Were the nuns playing possessed for all of the very real benefits that gaining the attention would get them? Almost certainly. Were they sincere at the same time? Sort of. Sincerely believing you’re possessed has very different final results to actually being possessed.

Not everyone can be a saint. If you can’t be perfectly good, perhaps being perfectly evil might be all the chance you have left to be exceptional. From this standpoint, being the vessel for a prince of Hell is a reasonable trade-off.

What other options are there? Even being in the convent is a trade-off.

On a visit to the tavern, Sister Małgorzata (Anna Ciepielewska), the only other nun with a speaking part in the film, enthusiastically joins in with a folk song in a young woman’s voice, where she muses about how in a choice between getting married and being abused, or entering the convent, she’ll take the convent. You realise that this really is why Małgorzata is a nun, and so when her charms catch the eye of the Squire, she thinks that maybe there is a third option. Of course, it doesn’t work. He gets her to take off the habit and put on a pretty dress, and they dance, and they have sex, and first thing in the morning, he’s gone, leaving her with no option but to return to the convent in despair.

Joan’s despair is different.

Mother Joan: You want me to be like the thousands who have no aim on earth. You want to see me at prayer all day long. To see me eating beans all day. Do you promise me salvation for this? I do not want such salvation. If one can’t be a saint, it’s better to be damned. Oh, if only you could make me a saint. I want nothing else.


Joan identifies her possession as the thing that makes her special. While it does not occur to Jósef that the possession might be a sham, the other nuns, represented by Sister Małgorzata, are fully aware that there is artifice there (“She did the sooty handle trick,” Małgorzata freely admits) but there is more to it than that. Joan needs to be noticed. In the habit, she is invisible, but possessed, she matters.

Jósef agonises over how to free Joan from her demons. At a loss, he resorts to visiting a Rabbi. The scene with the Rabbi is where Mother Joan of the Angels departs from any sort of formal realism, Soviet or otherwise, since the Rabbi is also played by Mieczyslaw Voit, and the weirdly stylised way in which the conversation between one actor playing two parts is portrayed is hammered home by the Rabbi’s assertion that he and Jósef are the same. It works then as a sort of internal monologue, externalised. Again, no point of view is prioritised by Kawalerowicz; the thought processes of the priest/Rabbi are a conversation, and the central point that both figures come to is open to interpretation, both diegetically and extradiegetically.

Rabbi: Love is at the root of everything on earth.

It’s through an act of love that Jósef finds what he thinks is the solution. In the real world, Jean-Joseph Surin decided that he would sacrifice his own soul, taking Joan’s demons into himself, and spending the next twenty years in a near-suicidal depression as a result. Here, Jósef makes the same decision, and either convinces himself he’s really possessed, or really is possessed. Which of those it is makes no difference to what happens next, as, wanting to make sure that the demons don’t go back to Joan, he decides that he has to do something terrible to keep them within his own soul.

When someone who thinks they’re possessed says “Yes, I remember where the axe is,” to the voice in their head, that is never a good sign.

Joan receives news that she’s free, and indeed free to be a saint, relieved as she is of a terrible possession. But it’s of no comfort to her. There has been more death. And one way to be special has been closed off to her forever. Being a saint is all she has left. And maybe the choice was a thing worth having in itself. In saving Joan, Jósef has imprisoned her in the convent forever.

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