J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Martin Scorsese Presents: Mother Joan of the Angels

In 1994, Polish jazz trumpeter-composer Tomasz Stańko recorded a tribute album to a film whose only music was diegetic, liturgical, and largely intended to be disturbing. It might sound like an odd source of inspiration, but Stańko is a genius and the film is a true touchstone of Polish cinema.  Handpicked by the ambassador of film restoration, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels (trailer here) screens with newly translated subtitles and a restored print as part of Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

The nuns of provincial convent have not been themselves lately. Four priests have already been dispatched to restore order, after their local Father was burned at the stake. The neurotic Father Jozef Suryn seems like a dubious candidate to reinforce the quartet of exorcists, especially to the naïve cleric. However, his earnest spirit might somehow forge a connection with Mother Joan.

Supposedly possessed by nine demons, she is considered the key to the convent’s occult hysteria. If she can be saved, the evil spirits controlling the rest of the nuns should duly fall away. She will be a devilishly hard case, but at least the scandal will entertain the rustic locals.

Visually, Mother Joan is one of the most arresting black-and-white films perhaps ever.  Jerzy Wójcik’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous yet eerie as all get out. Each frame reflects the soul-shattering stakes in play.  Based on the same notorious Loudun witchcraft inquisition that inspired Ken Russell’s The Devils, it is one of the few non-genre films to seriously depict demonic possession. It is highly charged sexually, but it is distinctly austere and ascetic, much like the self-flagellating Father Suryn. Among lurid nunsploitation films, it is the spiritually severe stylite.

Lucyna Winnicka’s titular performance is a legitimate tour de force, revealing everything while still maintaining a world of ambiguity. Is she truly possessed, psychotic, or repressed? Sure, take your pick. Mieczyslaw Voit provides the perfect counterpoint as the increasingly alienated Father Suryn, as well as a small but significant dual role held in reserve for the third act.

One of the great collaborations between Kawalerowicz and screenwriter-novelist Tadeusz Konwicki, Mother Joan is loaded with enough symbolic significance for several dozen cinema studies theses.  It is a heavy film, with a theme of eternal sacrifice that predates The Exorcist by more than ten years. Not horror, but profoundly unsettling, Mother Joan of the Angels is highly recommended when it screens this Saturday (2/8) and the following Tuesday (2/11) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema.

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