Inspired by the supposed possession of the Loudou nuns in 1634, Mother Joan of the Angels tells the tale of a Mother Superior possessed by eight demons and the man who tries to save her. By the standards of modern films like the Exorcist, the trials and tribulations that Mother Joan and the sisters go through are rather tame. She doesn’t spew profanities, or vomit, or physically transform in any way… it casts a reasonable amount of doubt on the events, but also serves to remind the viewer that even dance and song are forbidden to a pious nun, making even the only nun not touched by evil, a black sheep.
The film takes into question religious devotion, as well as the driving force of humanity; love. Late in the film, desperate for a cure, Father Jozef Suryn seeks help from a Rabbi, who answers that the driving force of even the most evil acts is love. He recounts a story of a young woman who was possessed by her dead lover, and he would not let go of her soul because he could not break the hold of his love. This opens up the film, allowing for everything to fall into place.
Mother Joan is an enigmatic woman, beautiful and commanding. Her strength is palpable, as is her frustration. She yearns for saintly perfection, but cannot achieve it. Instead she opens her heart and soul to demons, because if one cannot be a saint, we might as well be damned. There is a desire to be seen, to be loved, but her life in a convent prevents that. One even wonders how a woman so young, and clearly troubled could climb the ranks to become a Mother Superior, but I think this is intentional, a hint at her charismatic yearning to be loved, to be needed.
In 2001, Kawalerowicz was asked what the film was about, to which he answered;
It is a love story about a man and a woman who wear church clothes, and whose religion does not allow them to love each other. (…) The devils that possess these characters are the external manifestations of their repressed love.
Considering the subdued nature of the film, the eroticism and passion is palpable. Most of it due to the performance of Lucyna Winnicka, who is stunning and commanding. She is able to build up the pious and apparently weak Father Suryn to a man of great power and passion, bring him to his knees and move him to make a sacrifice so great, one would not believe it were possible upon our first introduction with him.
The cinematography and the side story of Sister Malgorzata, who’s light and song attracts the attention of a handsome Squire, add to both the forbidden nature of romantic and sexual love, as well as the general eroticism of the every day. The ever flowing white habit, the caged settings, the burning sweat and the songs. I think, perhaps, the most intense scene of the film is when Father Suryn and Mother Joan are in a small pavilion where clothes are dried in the sun. They talk, and then on opposite ends of they practise self-Flagellation (whipping your back with a cattail whip). It’s as close as they will ever be, and as far as religious worship of their level of devotion allows for physical release. As I understand it, it’s meant as a reminder of the mortal body and the immortal soul. Inducing suffering to create humility, which is what Mother Joan sorely lacks.
Love is the root of suffering and hatred, it is the root of everything. Repeatedly, Mother Joan is told to open her heart and let in love… little do they know, she loves the demons that possess her. It’s the sin of pride, she wants to be remembered, she wants to be able to have more evil in her than the others, and they allow her that. It also opens up Father Suryn to the idea of real love, love that requires true sacrifice and is palpable.
Sister Malgorzata is also forced to experience the hate and pain of love, knowing only the beauty and richness it brought beforehand. The possession didn’t effect her, perhaps because she was content, and loved life and God. There was a sincere happiness to her, a smile on her face and laughter in her heart. The only love she never experienced, was that for and with a man. When she meets the squire, she opens up her soul and then her body to him, only to be betrayed and left broken. In a way, it’s only because she loved that she was able to feel the pain of heartbreak. She was living the happiness of a child, a suggestion once made in passing to Mother Joan, but now forced to grapple with adult emotions and feelings she cannot return to religious life and casts herself out.
Mother Joan of the Angels is a great story of unrequited love, romantic and otherwise, and great faith. It puts into question dogmatic practise and religious devotion and practise as repressive, and a shield against the pains and trials of the real world. The film leaves much to the viewer, and creates a visceral experience, emerging the audience into the action and minds of the character through a moving camera, including numerous point of view shots. Even though most prints available are shoddy at best, the beautiful photography shines through.