Monday, June 29, 2009
Day 141: Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) - Rank 4.5/5
It's odd that by chance I should watch two film adaptations of Aldous Huxley's "The Devils of Loudun," a non-fiction account of a group of nuns that claimed to have been possessed and the priest that was burned at the stake for witchcraft (since he allegedly was at least partially responsible for their predicament). Ken Russell's "The Devils" focused on the events leading up to the possessions, ending with the death of Father Grandier. The Polish film "Mother Joan of the Angels" focuses on the events that took place after Grandier's death.
After the death of Grandier, Father Suryn is sent to exorcise the nuns, who still seem possessed, despite the death of their tormentor. While public exorcisms seem to reveal that many of the nuns may be feigning demonic possession due to mass hysteria, the head of the convent, the titular Mother Joan of the Angels, seems to be another case entirely. She not only leaves Father Suryn baffled as to how to rid her of her demons, but she also pushes him to question his faith as he starts to fall in love with her.
The ponderous complexity of Father Suryn is the heart of the film. He constantly professes to Mother Joan of the Angels that love is the central dogma of the universe and God's power, and he begins to realize that he must truly love the nun to save her. The line that he cannot cross begins to blur and he begins to realize that the only way to save the woman he loves is to show her how much he loves her by making the ultimate sacrifice and taking her devil into his body. Ah, but here's the delightful catch-22 of the situation - if he takes her devil into his body, then they still cannot be together for he will be possessed. Furthermore, so much of the film is presented in a manner that we question whether Mother Joan of the Angels really is possessed. If Father Suryn takes her demon, then will he become another product of the mass hysteria and leave Mother Joan of the Angels clean...or will she too still be "possessed?" What if Mother Joan of the Angels wants nothing more than to see Father Suryn go mad? The more you analyze the relationship between the two, the more complex it gets.
Ken Russell made a magnificent film with "The Devils," but the state of Sister Jeanne (the character in the tale commensurate with Mother Joan of the Angels) was clearly a product of her infatuation with Father Grandier. In "Mother Joan of the Angels," the viewer never has any information revealed behind the nun's possession, it is just a dilemma that must be solved. The ambiguity behind the intentions and possessions of the main characters makes the film more complex, though not as delightfully stylized as "The Devils." And while Vanessa Redgrave turned in a tormented performance in Ken Russell's film, Lucyna Winnicka is absolutely terrifying as Mother Joan of the Angels. When she first appears on screen, she seems harmless and fragile, but when incited, her eyes go dark and frenzied and her voice changes pitch in a "physical transformation" that requires no grotesque makeup - and that's what makes her possession so much more terrifying than those performances that would follow in cinema. I think there are several elements to "The Exorcist" that were highly influenced by the film, from a priest's desire to accept a demon from soul he's working with, to the nefarious spider walk (which Winnicka does without any strings attached, she merely pauses and slowly curls her body backwards in an unsettling confrontation). It's tough to say whether the film is a better interpretation of the real-life events at Loundun than "The Devils" for the two are such different stories. If anything, they would make excellent companion pieces.