Think of the gorgeous, austere Matka Joanna od aniolów as the sequel to Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), with the seventeenth-century historical material transplanted from Loudon, France, to rural, dry, frozen Poland. Father Urbain Grandier has already been burned alive for allowing his manliness to incite the repressed sexuality of nuns at the parish convent; now, Father Jozef Suryn is the fifth priest to visit to perform the necessary exorcism to relieve the mother superior of the eight demons in possession of her and thus also “free” the other nuns who (with a single exception) mimic her hysterical, blasphemous antics. Suryn will fail; seduced by Mother Superior Joanna’s bemused smiles and her plea for sanctity, he will fall in love.
The opening image of this black-and-white masterpiece, like much else in the film, initially perplexes. In folds of darkness, what is that globular whatever we see at a distance?—an anachronistic light bulb perhaps? It turns out to be the shaved dome of Father Jozef’s head as he enlists God’s help, in prayer, for his mission. Visually, communicating with God thereby dehumanizes the priest; upside-down images of their faces will similarly dehumanize residents of the convent.
In approaching this film, it is well to keep two facts in mind: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, who co-wrote it (with Tadeusz Konwicki) and directed, was of Jewish ancestry and was, himself, an avowed atheist. (Kawalerowicz died in 2007.) His gaze on these priest and nuns is, therefore, exceptionally clear-eyed and, at times, grimly funny. In the room where the sisters’ clean white habits drape over parallel clothes lines, forming a kind of maze, Joanna self-flagellates in the prescribed manner, lightly and symbolically, while Jozef whips himself ferociously, his bloody, onanistic frenzy contributing to the breeze that causes the hanging habits to sway provocatively. At the last, believing he has dispossessed the woman he has come to love, Jozef is convinced by a distorted image of himself—God or Satan: take your pick—to take a lethal ax to two stable grooms, thereby maintaining himself in the grip of the demons, keeping them busy, so they do not take re-possession of Joanna: a warped, and wonderful, parody of Christian sacrifice. Ultimately, Kawalerowicz is whacking with an ax the whole notion that Jesus took our sins upon himself. Even more intriguingly, we are haunted by something that Joanna earlier said to Jozef: “When Satan leaves me, what if he takes possession of you?” In this context, demonic possession looms as a dreadful parody of grace.
This black-and-white film leans on diffuse grays, perhaps suggesting the dust we are always poised to return to. (There is plenty of dust in the film as well.) However, the white of the habits, along with the priesr’s dark garment, stands in sharp contrast; and in one unforgettable shot, the only thing that appears black—bereft of all light, that is to say—is the crucifix in Jozef’s outstretched hand! The stunning cinematography is by Jerzy Wójcik.
There is a curious meeting between the priest and the local rabbi, with the former hoping to learn from the latter the nature of sin. (“What am I doing here?” Jozef asks before entering the rabbi’s hut.) Perhaps “demonic possession,” or sinfulness, is merely human nature, the rabbi almost playfully suggests; but all the play is gone when he stridently confronts Jozef with their shared identity, their shared humanity, their shared nature despite Christian persecution of Jews: “You are me,” he tells an uncomprehending Jozef, whose Christianity has convinced him that he, himself, is superior to some Jew. Kawalerowicz has had a little fun here by casting the same actor, Mieczyslaw Voit, as both the rabbi and the priest.
Stark and powerful, and absolutely essential, Matka Joanna od aniolów is irredeemably brilliant. It closes on a muted closeup of a gigantic tolling bell: a symbolical silencing of the Church. The film won for Kawalerowicz the Jury Special Prize at Cannes.
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