Saturday, April 4, 2009

Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Mother Joan of the Angels (1962)

My aunt and uncle are nearing retirement and with Spring in full swing, I noticed at their home that their dogwood flowers were in full bloom. My uncle told me that the flowers were grown from clippings given to him by his father, long gone now by several years, from the dogwood flowers surrounding his childhood home. Hurricane Katrina had wiped that group of flowers away. I remember Katrina taking a lot from us, but she also gave me the opportunity to see my mother and father's reunion, after their longest spell apart, in thirty-two years of marriage. For the first time, I saw not my old man and my Mom but rather two people who really loved each other in an embrace. Likewise, my aunt and uncle, nearing thirty-seven years of marriage, plan to retire in my uncle's childhood home, with a handful or two of dogwood flowers to put back in the earth. Hearing my uncle tell his story in the most unassuming way, I was struck by how poetic it was. Normally, I'm a fairly shallow person, but moved by his story, I continued the poetic mood and revisited a favorite poetic film, Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Mother Joan of the Angels (1962).

Father Jozef Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit) arrives at the outskirts of the cloister to go behind the walls to participate in a series of public exorcisms of the nuns, led by Mother Joan of the Angels (Lucyna Winnicka). A previous priest, who had fathered two children, has been burned at the stake outside the convent, while it is believed that the nuns inside are possessed by demons.
Father Jozef has been raised and lived primarily within seclusion his whole life. He comes to his task with the utmost humility and piety. His inner walls are about to crumble a little bit when he meets Mother Joan.So begins one of the most bizarre, yet very touching and tragic love stories ever filmed. Real human contact is a rare commodity in this society. Not even E.M. Forster's Edwardian England could produce such a formal series of events coming near to courting. Mother Joan wants to open up her life within the cloister and she notices by attracting the attention of "demons," pervasive within herself and her sisters, she can invite not only the highest priests but the entire public to invade the sanctuary. Feeling an attraction for Father Jozef, she must continue to act possessed in order to keep him closer.

Father Jozef does not like his new feelings, and as penance, he often punishes himself by lashing his back while kneeling. During one of the film's most famous scenes, the public exorcism, Mother Joan puts on quite a show. However, she seeks redemption, a few whispered words of prayer, within earshot of only Father Jozef. Father Jozef believes that the best course to her salvation is to move her away from the public eye and close her up in a room with himself for quiet prayer. The pain only becomes more excruciating as the two are alone, and Father Jozef's feelings deepen, as do Mother Joan's. Eventually, Father Jozef must literally erect a fence between himself and Mother Joan to keep their feelings at bay. Realizing that he cannot overcome his human feelings for Mother Joan of the Angels, Father Jozef becomes a martyr, preferring to have the "demons" within him.

Shot with virtually no music, Kawalerozwicz's Mother Joan of the Angels is like a series of flickering beautiful still photographs. Each frame could stand completely alone. The symbolism is obvious but nonetheless powerful. The burnt remnants of the stake outside the convent serve as a reminder to those who break their vows. The shots of the convent show it looming over the countryside as a source of curiosity for those outside and as a prison for those within. There is many a surreal touch in the film: Father Jozef encounters a rabbi in an enclosed room. The rabbi is played also by Mieczyslaw Voit, so when the two begin a discussion on the nature of feelings, redemption, and evil, it is as if Jozef is speaking to himself in a mirror, reflecting the questions within Jozef's heart. Anna Ciepielewska plays Sister Malgorzata, the only nun who isn't playing possessed. She ventures out of the convent to the local tavern to gossip with the barmaid and sing a few songs. She meets Chrzaszczewski (Stanislaw Jasiukiewicz), and the two fall seemingly in love. In an ironic touch, Chrzaszczewski abandons her after their first night together. Sister Malgorzata opened her heart and shed her habit, only to have her heart broken to create an even stronger desire to run and hide within the cloister. Human feelings of intimacy are shown as very valuable and fragile. Father Jozef's tragic ending is evidence of this sentiment.
The rich history of the actors and actresses, the director, and circumstances of this film are beyond the focus, my intent, and the scope of this entry. This is a film which is both very real and surreal and one of the most poetically haunting films that I've ever seen. Mother Joan of the Angels is not one that I visit very often, but when I do, it is always memorable.

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