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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Labels: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Martin Scorsese Presents, Polish Films