The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

If Mother Joan of the Angels is an almost serene portrait of possession and adoration, Ken Russell’s The Devils is the frenzied and fevered religious vision of a mad man.  Gone are the bare and modest sets, the quiet introspection and restrained images of possession… The Devils is the portrait of an orgiastic satanic imprisonment. What is Satan? Satan is man, Satan is madness, Satan is monarchy, Satan is megalomania.  Jeanne’s (not Joan’s) possession is driven by desire, and her own ugliness. She is hunchbacked, but she has the “face of an angel”. She has no real apparent passion for Christ, she resentfully explains that her order is comprised of noble women whose families could not afford dowries or are simply too ugly to be married off appropriately… it is her intelligence that allows her to rise to the top of her order, and her swift talent with words constantly puts her in a position of power within the convent.

She has little, if any power in the outside world though. She seems aware of that, though she lures the outside in, because she is so clever and so wanting… her frustration and fury is overwhelming though, and her wanting overcomes logic. When her attempts to lure the beautiful Grandier into her world fail, she lashes out against him, unaware at the true consequences of her actions. As clever as she is, she is still sheltered and innocent. Her apparent monstrosity is a trick, for she is just a child.

The Devils insists on the humanity of it’s characters, as apparently wanton and lustful as Grandier is, his passions are not the work of evil, but of man. His lusts, though painted as disreputable, are not evil… they’re a testament to his weakness, but also to his love of life and God, as contradictory as it sounds. There is a moment though, when he asks for a young girl’s hand, and he tells her something… something about death, about her touching the dead. Is this an error in judgement? Or has he not been saved yet?

The Church and the government use Jeanne’s weakness, they see her desperation and frustration, and they indulge it… not as a gift, but as a means of destroying opposition, of destroying intelligence and destroying faith. Then, they torture her. The torture is barbaric, and you see the pain on her face and those of the sisters. Even though the sisters once mocked her, they understand her humanity and her femininity… they empathize with her pain, because they are human, just as she is. Their own rebellion against her pain, and then their imminent execution shows how helpless they all are. Their weakness is in their desire to live, which is not a weakness at all, it is an unfortunate need.

Who are the Devils in this film? The Cardinal? The Inquisition? The Torturers? I don’t think so… there are no Devils in this film, that’s what is so barbaric about it. All the evils and pains are sprung from man, just as the strengths and wisdom is. The film, as controversial, exploitive and barbaric as it may be… as apparently blasphemous as certain sequences are (the strange orgy around the crucified Christ), the film strangely enough, inspires a kind of respect in God. I can’t say I believe in God, though I believe that people believe, and I think it’s a beautiful idea. The strength that Grandier espouses is very human but it is not only his own. It is inspired by love, and in his case.. it’s the love of his wife, but as he understands his religion, all love comes from the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made. As terrible a priest he may have been, he does believe, and willingly dies for that belief.

I don’t know what to think of this film really. I find it fascinating, the performances are passionate… intense. Vanessa Redgrave is a presence that you can’t take your eyes off of her, she is beautiful, though they do disfigure her. You can believe that she could inspire adoration in spite of her humpback. The film is indulgent; the focus is not as heartfelt or heartbreaking as that of Mother Joan of the Angels… though I think that’s more in the tone than it is in the content. I wonder what this film could have been without Grandier’s wife. She does inspire Jeanne’s anger, which acts as a crucial catalyst in the film, but there could have been something incredibly potent in Grandier’s salvation through his love for this strange nun. They would have never had to meet or seen each other, her accusations could have remained the same, but in his own unforgiving promiscuity, a line like “Anything found in the desert of a frustrated life can bring hope. With hope comes love. With love comes hate. So I possess her. May God help her in her misery and unhappiness” (relating to Jeanne), could be far more nuanced and passionate…even, more ambiguous. I think, to not give him apparent salvation, even if it is through carnal love, could have made the film a touch more interesting, or perhaps I’m simply blinded by my adoration of nuns.

Review of Mother Joan of the Angels

Mother Joan of the Angels (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961)

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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.
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Agnes of God (Jewison, 1985)

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Instead of spending your hard earned money on Doubt, I recommend instead you rent Norman Jewison’s film, Agnes of God. This is a time of economic turmoil afterall, while one might ordinarily be able to sacrifice $10 on an average film based on a play that’s somewhat entertaining, I suggest you spend half that money (if not less) on renting a different film that explores the same themes with far more insight and cinematic prowess. Though also based on a play, and similarly dealing with a mystery and THE mystery of organized religion, Agnes of God defies it’s theatrical roots thanks to stunning cinematography that accentuates both the intimacy and alienation religion evokes in the modern world. The film does suffer from some of the same mistakes and problems as the aforementioned film, notably a sort of misguided centering on procedure rather than the “real” issues at hand. Perhaps I am too forgiving, because I am pulled into Agnes’ spell, and raising the questions is enough for me even without answers.

The film is set in Montreal, Quebec, during what I assume is the late 1970s/early 1980s. The film makes a point to emphasize the modernity of the situation to estrange the nuns further from what we know as the real world. It is essential that the audience understands the events, potential miracles of God, under the circumstances of secular life. The film is centered around the mystery of a strangled newborn, whose mother is young Agnes, a novice-nun. It quickly becomes apparent that she is not quite in her right mind, and her understanding of the events are blurred and twisted by her unusual perception of the world around her. Enter state assigned psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda, who seemed to have turned 71 yesterday), to evaluate whether Agnes is responsible for her actions. Everyone from the judge to the mother superior seem to want her to make her evaluation quickly and cleanly, as it’s pointed out that nobody wants to see a nun in prison, no matter what they may have done. This seems to go against her personal set of beliefs, though her own impartiality over the case is often brought up, as her own dealings with Catholicism are darkly tainted, even though she doesn’t like to admit it.

When caught up in procedure and law, the film loses ground, though thankfully these sequences are brief and the film allows the audience to become as entrapped by questions of faith as she does. The mystery is really secondary, though consistently hanging over our heads. The question of why this happened, rather than how becomes far more important as we come to understand the sacrifice of living in a convent, perhaps even more so in a modern world. The film raises the question of modern saints and modern miracles, and the Mother Superior seems resigned to the idea they no longer exist. Much like No Country for Old Men, the film questions the idea that perhaps they never did. That life is as bleak now as it was 200 years ago, but history and perceptions twist and turn along the way. The same as the perception of innocence, a trait that is often used to describe Agnes, which is just as skewed and unfounded as that of miracles and sainthood. The film handles these words and semantics in a light handed way, but it’s important to realise how important they are in dealings of faith. The rules and understandings hang on a thread, on words that no longer are used or have multiple understandings. Meanings are lost with languages, and nothing is as it seems. That doesn’t mean there is no beauty in the world however, but perhaps that is my own objection and problems with religion at work. Do we need miracles to confirm faith? Can’t the miracle of existence, and the spontaneity of non-creation based life be incredible and mystifying. This unveils perhaps the biggest squandered opportunity of the film, and the writers/filmmakers failure to acknowledge the only true miracle of the film.
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I think it all stems back to the relegation of womanhood and the prophesied guilt of female sexuality. It’s not addressed in full, but certainly it’s brought up. The mother superior’s speech about how menstruation isn’t wrong, as well as Agnes’ explaining “good babies” and “bad babies”. The film is centered entirely on women, and their own interactions with the church and life. The issue of the mortal body as well becomes an obvious issue, and it’s really one of the most fascinating aspects of the Catholic faith. The idea of stigmata, virgin birth, the burning heart, fasting, mutiliation and suffering are so beyond my conception of spirituality that I cannot help being taken in by their meaning and implication. The real questions and issues became especially apparent for me while reading Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, and the story an Algonquin Saint, Catherine Tekakwitha, and her interpretation of the impermanence and physical sacrifice of the body. Her extremes really opened my eyes (and in a way, soul) to the real implications of faith in the Bible. I was not repulsed though certainly puzzled, and my reaction is similar in the case of Agnes of God. Like Cohen’s work, it seems especially concerned with the mortal body in context of female sexuality. The inclusion of apparent stigmata complicates the film even more, creating even more ambiguity than before. There is perhaps a sort of psychosis involved, a grand reflection of the mind and heart on the body but the questions are left unanswered. Even before her pregnancy, Agnes is clearly obsessed with the nature of her body, claming to being too fat for heaven and God. The Mother Superior sees it as a moment of vanity, and a misunderstanding of the scriptures at first, but there is something more at work. Agnes declares “suffering is beautiful”, a line that sticks with me above all others. The line is so perplexing and… for lack of a better word, innocent. It sums up my understanding of the “beautiful” aspects of religion, as well as the ones that continue to obsess me. I don’t see myself ever subscribing to any faith, at least nothing organized, but I find the motifs of Catholicism especially are so in tune with my daily obsessions and ponderings. I treat them less as an issue of spiritual faith, but psychological and moral. I wonder if I’ll ever truly understand the meaning of life, or more simply, the role of blood. Something about blood is just so occupying and pervading. If ever I could be so obsessed and troubled by something intimate, it’s blood; all it’s implications and interpreted meanings just boggle my mind. It has me under hypnosis, blood is life, but it is so impermanent and it has no mind or will.

I feel like I’ve come to no real conclusions in terms of Agnes of God, only that it perplexes me in the same way most religion does. The film raises more questions than it answers, this is true, but isn’t that the very nature of religion, theology and morality? It’s never a world of black and white, and even things we have complete faith in are subject to the uncertainty of humanity. Even if God exists, the subject of free wills alienates us from it (I don’t like the idea that God would be a he). We are essentially lost in a sea of nothing, only able to connect with each other, and even then we cannot help making mistakes and failing even those we love. Some argue that God is love, and Agnes argues that she loves everyone. Did she love her child? It doesn’t seem so, the reasons are cryptic and deeply entranced in great psychological suffering. Livinstone’s own trauma’s, though hardly as extreme as Agnes’, do reveal a common bond between us as her own pain prevents her from connecting to others, just as Agnes’ prevents her from connecting to reality. Her own evolution as a human being places her in the role of a mother, and one wonders if God could ever really be a father. We all have issues with the idea of motherhood (even the word itself) and the film, briefly touches on these complicated familial roles. Religion itself seems to rob womanhood of true motherhood, as we are a) all born as sinners and b) the only non-sinful birth, Jesus, is devoid of all female sexuality because of Mary’s virginity. I don’t think the film goes to blame religion for the uncertainty and sinful associations people have with motherhood, but it certainly raises the question. The idea, at the very least, weighs heavily on Agnes’ mind who believes she is wrong, she is a mistake and so is her child. Her naivety is troubling, both inspiring and frightening, and to those who are fast to judge those who are faithful though characters like the Mother Superior, there is presented the idea of how important right state of mind, and morality come into play. None of the characters are perfect, and even in judgement they are not judged by the lens of the character. They are allowed to be human, ugly and beautiful all at once… they’re all suffering, but not in the way Agnes understands the concept. Humanity is suffering, and it unfortunately becomes a matter of having faith… though, I’m hardly suggesting it has to be faith in a God or religion. Just some kind of acceptance and belief in ones self, or some possibility, or some other person.
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