Matka Joanna od Aniolów (1961)


MOTHER JOAN OF THE ANGELS (aka: THE DEVIL AND THE NUN) (Matka Joanna od aniolów)

(director/writer: Jerzy Kawalerowicz; screenwriters: Tadeusz Konwicki/from a story by Jaroslav Iwaskiewicz; cinematographer: Jerzy Wójcik; editor: Wieslawa Otocka; music: Adam Walacinski; cast: Lucyna Winnicka (Mother Joan), Mieczyslaw Voit (Father Joseph Suryn/The Rabbi), Anna Ciepielewska (Sister Margaret), Maria Chwalibóg (Antosia, Inn Barmaid/Seer), Kazimierz Fabisiak (Father Brym), Stanislaw Jasiukiewicz (Chrzaszczewski, The Squire), Zygmunt Zintel (Wincenty Wolodkowicz, The Innkeeper), Franciszek Pieczka (Odryn), Jerzy Kaczmarek (Kaziuk); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; Facets Video; 1961-Poland-in Polish with English subtitles)

A disturbing erotic religious tale.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A disturbing erotic religious tale transported to 17th Century Poland that’s based on the possession of Ursuline nuns that led to the burning of the libertine Father Urbain Grandier at the stake in Loudun, France in 1634. Jerzy Kawalerowicz (“Death of a President”/”Shadow”/”Pharaoh”) directs in a restrained but highly stylized manner a subject that was also touched upon by Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudun, a John Whiting play and by Ken Russell’s hysterical film of “The Devils.” It’s a fine study of faith, superstition, repression, overzealous behavior, a woman’s place in the male-dominated world and the questioning of the dogmatic ritual of institutional religion.

The pious, self-sacrificing and humble Father Joseph Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit) visits the isolated country convent investigating the demonic possession of Joan of the Angels (Lucyna Winnicka), the Mother Superior of the Ursuline nuns. Prior to Father Joseph’s arrival, a corrupt Catholic parish priest, Father Grandier, who fathered two children with the nuns and was accused of using sorcery to seduce her, was burned at the stake at her testimony and several other nuns he also seduced. Many other priests were called to the convent, but failed in their attempt to exorcise the evil spirits. The other nuns have followed the Mother Superior’s example and let minor sexually enticing demons enter them, while only Sister Margaret (Anna Ciepielewska) remains untouched.

Despite Father Joseph’s prayers, love extended to the possessed woman, self-flagellation, and the use of textbook methods of exorcism (the exorcism scene being the film’s highlight), all his efforts fail and he becomes possessed. Father Joseph has Mother Joan isolated from the other nuns and put behind bars. As a last resort, Father Joseph confers with the local wise elderly rabbi (also played by Voit), who tells him what he might be facing is only human nature and those lessons can’t be learned overnight. Furthermore he states: “Every evil that men do towards other men, is nothing compared to the evil that dominates them.”

In a desperate effort to save Mother Joan, Father Joseph slays two innocent stable grooms and maintains this is a human sacrifice to Satan to give his own soul to the demon so that Mother Joan will be released from her possession. The film ends as Father Joseph meets at the inn a fallen Sister Margaret, who slept that night with a lustful nobleman (Stanislaw Jasiukiewicz) who abandoned her in the morning. Father Joseph advises that the sobbing Sister Margaret go back to the convent and implores her to tell Mother Joan what he has done to save her soul, and the last scene has the church bell tolling for a fallen world.

It won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.