(Mother Joan of the Angels)
Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
Production: Kadr Film Unit for Film Polski; black and white, 35mm; running time: 125 minutes and 105 minutes, English version is 101 minutes. Released 1961, Poland.
Screenplay: Tadeusz Konwicki and Jerzy Kawalerowicz, from a novel by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz which in turn was based on 17th century
Lucyna Winnicka (
); Mieczysław Voit (
Father Jozef Suryn/the Rabbi
); Anna Ciepielewska (
); Maria Chwalibóg (
); Kazimierz Fabisiak (
); Stanisław Jasiukiewicz (
); Zygmunt Zintel (
); Franciszek Pieczka (
); Jerzy Kaczmarek (
); Jarosław Kuszewski (
); Lech Wojciechowski; Marian Nosek.
Jerzy Kawalerowicz: Filmtexte , Munich, 1963.
Grzelecki, Stanislaw, 20 Years of Polish Cinema , Warsaw, 1969.
Wegner, Jacek, Konwicki (in French), Warsaw, 1973.
Liehm, Mira and Antonin, The Most Important Art: East European Film after 1945 , Berkeley, 1977.
Kuszewski, Stanislaw, Contemporary Polish Film , Warsaw, 1978.
Flacon, Michel, in Cinéma (Paris), no. 57, 1961.
Douchet, Jean, in Arts (Paris), 7 June 1961.
Siclier, Jacques, "Paphnuce et les Chacals," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), July 1961.
Thirard, Paul-Louis, "Le Père Joseph et la Mère Jeanne," in Positif (Paris), September 1961.
Kawalerowicz, Jerzy, "Angles on the Angels," in Films and Filming (London), November 1961.
Hitchens, Gordon, in Vision (New York), Spring 1962.
Durgnat, Raymond, in Films and Filming (London), May 1962.
Hart, Henry, in Films in Review (New York), May 1962.
Mekas, Jonas, in Village Voice (New York), 17 May 1962.
Lefèvre, Raymond, in Image et Son (Paris), October 1962.
Callenbach, Ernest, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1963–64.
Michalek, Boleslaw, in Kino (Warsaw), no. 6, 1967.
Hopfinger, Maryla, in Kino (Warsaw), no. 11, 1971.
Cluny, C. M., in Cinéma (Paris), November 1982.
Helman, Alicja., in Kino (Warsaw), April 1986.
Iluzjon , no. 3–4 (51–52), 1993.
* * *
"The revolt of oppressed humanity" is how one Polish critic described Mother Joan of the Angels and with this definition various levels of meaning may be glimpsed. The novel of the same name by the well-known author Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, deals with an occurrence in the eastern region of Poland in the 17th century. The young ascetic priest Suryn ventures into a cloister where, it is said, all of the nuns are in the terrible grip of Satan. Four exorcists have made every effort, but in vain, to drive out the evil.
In his first encounter with the Mother Superior Joan, the priest is somewhat disappointed—instead of a miserable creature in the Devil's grasp, he is greeted by a beautiful, dignified, and proud woman who engages him in a serious philosophical discussion. Between the two a shy, tender affection develops, a kind of halting love which they cannot resolve. The closed world of religious dogma and ritual shut out such a love. (Another nun, Małgorzata, has let herself be led astray by a nobleman who later abandons her, and she despairs of returning to the convent).
Suryn, in a tragic conflict with himself, with his feelings and his principles, decides on radical measures; to begin with he builds a screen in the attic where he meets with Joan, so that she can not come too near. Then he brings in two innocent boys with the aim of concentrating the satanic might onto them, thereby freeing Joan. In his holy foolishness, he suspects no tragic consequences; for him everything is only a game, a challenge to moral norms and customs, to the mendacity of his surroundings. For the clever woman, religion is not a calling but an opportunity to live free of the burden of a woman's fate at that time.
Even in the cloister, in the perfect, uniformed and regulated system, Joan has rebelled against a one-dimensional, determinedly average existence. She unleashes this theater of darkness, with its possession by the devil and exorcisms, in order to express her need for love and spiritual contact. That is her vengeance on the cruel world; and as is the rule in the great tragedies, she causes the sacrifice of her beloved.
Kawalerowicz has succeeded in creating a poetically stylized work full of contrasts, elevated in its sincerity. The impressive, emotionally-laden, subtle interpretations by Lucyna Winnicka (Joan) and Mieczysław Voit (Suryn), grab the viewer and awake similar feelings. Without any physical contact, only through close-ups, eyes, glimpses, hands, the film refracts a delicate, but elusive eroticism. The film is full of erotic allusions, indirect, unprovoked, transmitted through atmosphere and images. As a pure art work, Mother Joan embodies an almost mystic ambivalence which releases intense feelings and many-layered thoughts. It is completely wrong to view the film as a critique of the church or religion. Rather, this Polish film should be seen as a lyrical tragedy of human existence, as a striving toward spiritual freedom, toward emotion and dreams. The director's visual symbolism and his means of expression all point to this. Plagued by the contradictions of his situation, Suryn goes looking for a rabbi. Astonishingly, he discovers that the rabbi is himself (played by the same actor). He sees the situation with more wisdom and composure, realizing that there are no solutions to the existential questions of life. Mother Joan of the Angels is a film about the eternal quest for those answers.