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Saturday Night at the Movies

By Grace Andreacchi.

‘Maybe it’s not demons, maybe it’s just the absence of angels?’ – the Rabbi to Father Suryn (both played by Mieczyslaw Voit)

With an economy of means and compression of significance that is perhaps only possible in film, the first five minutes of Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels contains the whole even as an acorn contains an oak. It opens with the priest, Father Suryn, stretched out upon the floor in cruciform position, praying a penitential prayer. A bell begins to toll, he rises, goes to the window, and we see the shape of the cross formed by the window frame as he thrusts open the window forcefully. Outside is a desolate landscape, and high on a hill, close by, the convent where the priest has been called to attempt an exorcism. Two stable boys then move into view, and one asks the other why they are ringing the bell. ‘For those lost in the forest,’ comes the answer. The priest leaves his room and enters what we now see to be the common dining room at an inn. The mistress of the place is strumming a sad little song on a lute, while an oddly deformed man sits at the table eating soup. The song, which will return later, is about a young girl who would ‘rather be a nun’ than have a husband who might beat her.

The two stable boys are the key to the story, for they are the ‘innocents’ who must pay with their blood in order for the exorcism to succeed. Not wishing to spoil things for the uninitiated, I will only that add that when, a few minutes later, the priest sees an axe ominously poised in a shaft of light we can be dead sure that axe (like Chekhov’s famous gun) is going to be put to vigorous use before the movie is over. And Mother Joan, the Mother Superior who is infested with eight devils (that’s one more than Mary Magdalene) isn’t the only one with problems up at the convent. The young extern Sister turns out to be rather fond of the landlady’s little song, and of dancing with a visiting squire. So the innocent song is used to seduce, to say the opposite of what it means. Meanwhile the rest of the nuns are possessed to a greater or lesser degree, a kind of possession by association with their Reverend Mother. In a scene of unforgettable beauty and tension they process into the church, each face framed in its white wimple passing from darkness into light, and then engage in a strange ritual dance that is more chilling than all the strenuous excess of little Linda Blair in The Exorcist. And, while based on the same series of events that inspired Ken Russell’s The Devils, Kawalerowicz’s film is restrained and chilling, not in the least campy.

Mother Joan of the Angels manages to be at once a work of astonishing beauty, a theological examination of the whole vexed question of demonic possession, a moving exegesis of the concept of spiritual love and a very, very scary night at the movies. The medium is uniquely well-suited to theological debate, as a form of ‘writing with light’ the shorthand is immediate. The ‘possession’ is left ambiguous: are these devils ‘real’, or merely the acting out of the characters’ psychological weaknesses? But then, who better than devils to exploit such weaknesses to their own ends? The devils are fallen angels – why do men and angels fall from grace? Why does God allow this? In a moment of pure horror, Mother Joan reveals her secret to the priest. ‘I love my devils,’ she says. ‘I don’t want them to leave.’ Neither will you.

First posted: Saturday, October 10th, 2009.

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