Currently, TIFF Bell Lightbox is hosting a movie series called Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, with “Mother Joan of the Angels”, a 1961 movie by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, having screened on June 21. The TIFF Cinematheque series runs now through July 1, with movies shown from various decades of prominent Polish cinematic history. It’s a series that covers all types of movies, from demonic possessions to murder mysteries, and is sure to be a delight for all types of movie fans.
“Mother Joan of the Angels” is the aforementioned demonic possession movie, which tells the story of Father Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit), a priest who’s been sent to a convent to verify/discredit a potential case of otherworldly inhabitation. When he arrives, he meets Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka), a nun who’s possessed by no fewer than eight demons. We first meet her in the dusty courtyard of the covenant, she modestly covered up in virginal white robes and he in his sombre black ones.
She talks as sweetly as the saints she prays to, but there’s a conniving to her countenance that simmers just beneath the surface. It’s clear that not everything Mother Joan says is as innocent as she’d like to have us believe, and the first conversation between her and Father Suryn goes down uneasily, like swallowing a dry piece of bread. As the movie progresses, Father Suryn comes to the conclusion that in order to save Mother Joan’s soul, he must commit actions greater than he’d originally anticipated before arriving at the convent.
Father Suryn is a meek man, a gentle priest who believes in solitary prayer and self-flagellation over thundering in all fire and brimstone. Voit plays him with just the right combination of gentleness and earnestness, a priest quietly struggling to lead his flock by example. He has excellent chemistry with Winnicka, with their scenes inspiring genuine fear about what’s to come next.
In particular, the scene where director Kawalerowicz films them in the sort-of jail, with Mother Joan behind bars and Father Suryn swearing to commit the crime, is a particularly poignant one. As reluctantly as he accepts his duty, Mother Joan’s face is transformed into one of agony and ecstasy, torment and purity. That Winnicka has managed to present this duality for the duration of the film speaks even more to both her ability and Kawalerowicz with his excellent direction.
Kawalerowicz uses close up shots fairly frequently, giving us an in-depth look into the character’s souls and what their expressions tell us that their words don’t. It’s a highly intimate way of filming “Mother Joan of the Angels”, and interestingly juxtaposes the mystique of the film. Instead of pulling back with the camera and leaving various details a little hazy, which would further underscore the holy/evil aura, he contrasts it with intimacy and provides even more depth.
But where he succeeds marvellously with the camera work, Kawalerowicz falls a bit short with some of the dialogue. It’s dreamy in some parts and stilted in others, with the latter coming off too much as canned dialogue instead of genuine interplay. Perhaps it’s because he chose to situate his film in the 17th century and approximated what people then would have sounded like, but the writing isn’t at the same standard throughout the 105 minutes.
However, when viewed against the corpus of possession movies since Kawalerowicz’s, “Mother Joan of the Angels” rises above them in terms of cinematography, suspense, quality acting and sound design. It’s an easy genre to sink to the bottom in, but Kawalerowicz deftly manages to avoid the trap of cheap thrills in favour of carefully setting the pace.
For more information on Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, which runs through July 1, visit TIFF Bell Lightbox’s site.