Taking as its inspiration the possessed nuns of Loudon, Mother Joan of the Angels inevitably courts comparison with Ken Russell’s The Devils, made ten years later. Less outré than the British director’s handling of the subject, Jerzy Kawalerowicz nevertheless turns in a work with its fair share of the fantastical. Indeed, there is a definite sense of the horror film, though it’s not so much the expected kinship with sixties and seventies Eurohorror. Rather the opening twenty minutes or so prove oddly reminiscent of those examples of the genre which Hammer made their own.
When describing these initial moments it is important to use the word “we” as Kawalerowicz completely submerges us in the on-screen activities. His camera swings around as though to address us, characters speak almost directly into the lens, and we are allowed so close to its subjects as to be mere inches away. Indeed, the Hammer-style opening in which a priest enters an inn to be met with a lute playing wench and various drunken locals easily transcends its Michael Ripper-starring equivalents (for me always the weak point in the films of Terence Fisher, et al). We may get chatter of “the evil one” and ominous shots of the convent along the way – the film opens with the nuns already possessed; the priest who fuels the narrative is the fifth to visit this small community – but there’s a far greater sense of precision and clarity.
Of course, this makes itself known most prominently through visual means, as the image which adorns the disc’s sleeve clearly shows. Yet Kawalerowicz has as much a handle on Mother Joan’s dramatics. Primarily the film is a two-hander between Mother Joan and the priest as he attempts to dispossess her. Indeed, this element also provides a groundwork upon which everything else can serve as a counterpoint. Thus we have a gentle romance blooming between a squire and one of the convent’s nuns, and a stark Polish landscape of dust and snow upon which a pair of children play in what can only be deemed to be an ironic comment. (In this latter respect, Mother Joan also completely disinherits itself from The Devils and Derek Jarman’s very overt sense of design.)
Moreover, this greater focus upon only two of the characters allows for some much needed breathing room. Within this context the various “big” scenes – a lengthy exorcism and a particularly haunting moment towards the conclusion which I won’t divulge – are never allowed to tip Mother Joan into melodrama or, indeed, embarrassment. Furthermore, these moments are absolutely integral as they allow a manifestation of Mother Joan’s possession without relying on actress Lucyna Winnicka to provide too much in the way of histrionics. Rather the various other nuns are there to “enact” this part, thereby allowing her a more remote, human performance. Certainly, her serpentine features (aided by the fact that we never once see a hair on her head), near smirks and glances which can speak volumes provide all the suggestion we need.
Indeed, Kawalerowicz is adamant that he has also provided a love story between Mother Joan and the priest – an element which makes perfect sense through Winnicka’s performance. Moreover, this element once again demonstrates the affinities Mother Joan has with the horror film. Here we have a love story as seen through the idea of shared possession and the devil as unbridled sexuality. Of course, this may not make the film any more palatable to an audience raised on Freddy Krueger’s and Jason Vorhees’ screen exploits, but then it does make for a fine companion piece to Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf and Persona.
As Second Run have noted on both the sleeve and prior to the film’s opening, Mother Joan of the Angels arrives in the best condition possible, though this sadly means the use of an ancient tape. And to be honest, this condition is not all that good as we have to endure missing frames, variable contrast (though on a whole this is generally pleasing), highly noticeable grain and numerous instances of damage, whilst the soundtrack is similarly compromised and lacks true clarity. (On the plus side we do get the original Polish mono – though my player recognised it as Dolby Surround, not that any extra channels were employed – and newly translated, not to mention optional, English subtitles.) Indeed, it must be said that the overall quality is distracting to say the least. As such any decision to pick up the disc rests upon how much you wish to see and own the film. If you can retrain your eye to cope with, if you will, VHS quality, then Mother Joan does at least prove watchable. Moreover, Second Run have supplied ample warning so it seems churlish to criticise them too harshly; personally speaking I’d rather see such rarities issued and then have prospective buyers make up their own mind. Sadly, however, the extras aren’t likely to sway too many wavering opinions as these amount solely to an eight-page booklet containing (admittedly fine) liner notes by Andy Townsend and credits for the film.
Anthony Nield reviews Second Run's Region 2 release of Mother Joan of the Angels, a fascinating example of early sixties Polish cinema.