In April, the Polish film festival Kinoteka paid tribute to the recently deceased Polish master Jerzy Kawalerowicz, screening three of his films, including the acclaimed Mother Joan of Angels, a feverish exploration of sexual repression and religious fanaticism.
‘Is it my fault that I’m possessed by eight powerful demons?’ Father Jozef is only the latest in a regiment of exorcists dragged to a convent in a blasted wasteland to sort out Mother Joan. Initially impressed in a purely professional capacity by her range of devil moves, he is gradually drawn into her drama, until he loses himself in it. When desire can only find expression in the baroque theatre of possession and devotional self-harm, director Jerzy Kawalerowicz seems to be saying, the consequences are dire. But Mother Joan is not all Tarkovskian gloom: love in the convent precincts may be ultimately doomed, but the film has a fond eye for cheeky grins peeping out of wimples.
In fact, Kawalerowicz maintains near-perfect poise between taking religious torment seriously and celebrating earthly delights. The narrative traces a path back and forth between the inn with its unrestrained if boorish cavorting, and the convent where the battle between purity and lust contorts its denizens into hieroglyphs; now human crucifixes, now packets of convulsed limbs.
The only un-possessed nun, Sister Malgorzata, freely trots across the ash-heap to the inn, to gossip complaisantly with lusty gypsyish strumpets, sing a little song, and win the attentions of the shiny-toothed-and-booted squire. Back in the convent, she skirts the drama, tiptoeing round prostrated bodies, quietly but demurely deflating ceremony. Although closer to the world, Malgorzata is ingenuous rather than devious, and her earthly rapture is sweet but short. Perhaps she ought to have listened to the words of her song, recommending the veil over a faithless husband, rather than the jaunty tune.
On his first trip to the convent, Father Jozef encounters two little children frolicking in the wasteland; the love children of his predecessor Father Garniec, his local guide tells him. A burnt-out stake, all that remains of Father Garniec, is a clear warning of the pitfalls awaiting the prospective exorcist, but the sight of the children – ‘aniolíÂ³w’ (‘angels’), the local calls them – skipping without a care around the scene of their illicit author’s demise, sends another sort of message he is painfully unable to receive.
Lucyna Winnicka as Joan most brilliantly condenses these conflicts into one radiant face, able to slide seamlessly between sincere religious devotion and more earthly desire. Her rapt adoration for Father Jozef’s benediction pivots on the word ‘love’ into habit-rending lust. Between these extremes, it is as if there really is no difference, only a change in the light. In manifesting passion like an electric charge through a body, Winnicka’s performance is exemplary, the equal, mutatis mutandis, of Kathleen Byron’s in Black Narcissus. With practically no commentary or explication, Mother Joan is a brilliant visual exposition of the idea of possession as the only available mise en scíÂ¨ne for emotions that inexorably inhabit and overpower a ceremonial sincerely meant to transcend them.
In one memorable scene, in an airy pigeon loft veiled by rows of drying nun-laundry, naked to the wimple, Mother Joan finishes a lengthy stint of flagellation. She turns with the admiration of a fellow pro towards Father Jozef’s simultaneous mortification. Glowing and relaxed after their exertions, they get dressed and walk out, glancing shyly at each other. At least they’ve had their little moment together.