Friday, December 28, 2007

Mother Joan of the Angels

Every blue moon, I stumble across a rare gem. Occasionally, I am so impressed by it that I feel an obligation to make noise on the subject in an effort to lift it out of its obscurity. This is the case with a Polish film that I watched yesterday, Mother Joan of the Angels.

I first read about the film in an essay on the Art Theatre Guild. The ATG was chain of arthouse theatres in Japan, which was founded in the early 1960's. Mother Joan of the Angels was the first film to play in an ATG theater. For those unfamiliar with the ATG, along with being a chain of cinemas, it was also responsible for producing several masterpieces of late 60's/early 70's, independent Japanese cinema, such as Funeral Parade of Roses, Death by Hanging, Double SuicideEros Plus Massacre, Throw Away Your Books: Rally in the StreetsInferno of First Love, Ecstasy of the Angels, This Transient Life, and A Man Vanishes.

Mother Joan of the Angels is very unique because of its rarity. Like the Japanese movement known as Nuberu Bagu, which includes the directors of the above-mentioned films, the group of filmmakers known as the Polish Film School have yet to receive a great deal international representation. Andrzej Wajda is the forerunner of this movement. His war trilogy of the 1950's is quite well-known, and he, along with many of Poland's best directors, were educated at the Lodz Film School. The director of M.J.A., Jerzy Kawalerowicz, is also associated with the Polish Film School, but I was unable to determine what film school he was trained in. Yet, there is a high possibility that it was at Lodz.

This Polish production from 1961 is a sort of anachronistic sequel to Ken Russell's The Devils. Although Russell's film was released in 1971, this motion picture chronicles events that took place after the death of Father Grandier. Grandier was burned at the stake on accusations of witchcraft by the Church, and Mother Joan of the Angels deals with the further attempts to exorcise the demons from Mother Joan and the nuns of her convent.

The protagonist of the film is Father Suryn, an exorcist who has been called to the convent because of his experience. He, unlike Father Grandier, is a very pious, humble priest, and is confronted by a faith-challenging atmosphere immediately upon entering the town. Although based on a true story in the town of Loudon, this film redistributes the events in an undisclosed Polish village. During Father Suryn's first encounter with Mother Joan, the director creates a palpable sexual tension between them, a problem which will continually present itself throughout the course of the film.

Further information will have to be curtailed, as I intended this summation to be for those who have not seen the film. The themes of exorcism may appear morbid for some, but the author's concerns lie more within human pathos than the supernatural. This almost represents the Eastern European link between such austere, religious auteurs as Dreyer, Bresson, and Bergman. Kawalerowicz's fluid, subjective camera, and masterful montage is sure to leave many viewers amazed. There are many fascinating ideas presented about the cause of possession, but I will leave the viewer to discover them.

Also, I must warn the reader not to purchase the Region-2 Second Run DVD. Based on the screenshots from the review on, the Facets DVD, the version I viewed, is of much higher quality. The world must really be upside-down when Facets is the company to make the superior DVD. Their track record leaves much to be desired, to say the least.

I was extremely impressed by this feature, but I hesitate to call it a masterpiece, for the simple fact that I haven't seen anything else by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. It was also quite coincidental that I saw this film on the day that he died. Polart has released several of his features in Region-1, and there is a Region-2 release of his 1966 film, Pharaoh, which is stirring up quite a bit of anticipation within me.