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Cinema: Just Women

3 minute read

Joan of the Angels? (Film Polski; Telepix) is a beautiful, full-bodied young woman possessed by eight demons. Almost proudly, she rattles off their names—Balaam, Isacaaron, Behemoth, Gressil, Dog’s Tail, Amon, Leviathan, and Asmodeus, demon of lust. Asmodeus, of course, possesses many women. But Joan (Lucyna Winnicka) is no common wench: she is the mother superior in a Roman Catholic convent of Ursuline nuns.

The convent is set starkly on a treeless plain, but every day a bell is rung as a homing sound for wanderers “lost in the forest.” Following Joan’s example, all the sisters have gone erotically mad; they dance naked in their courtyard. Near the convent is a charred stake where the priest who fathered the mother superior’s two children died by fire.

Now another priest (Mieczyslaw Voit), a good, humble, godly man, has come to exorcise the demons in Mother Joan. Soon, in the convent attic where the sisters’ white habits are hung to dry, she smiles at Father Joseph and whispers: “What if the devil left me and entered you?” Cut. A flight of birds appears, whirling and wheeling, uncertain of direction but moving with frenzy. Cut. Back in the attic, Father Joseph is crying.

He flagellates his naked back and struggles to defeat the demons now within him too. He builds a barricade in the room where he hears Mother Joan’s confessions. But he succumbs again, and his own lights having failed, seeks the advice of a rabbi. The rabbi speaks in fearful axioms. “Love is at the root of everything on earth,” he tells the priest. “You are me and I am you.” The remark might be an admission of equal incomprehension—both parts are played by the same actor. In the end, the priest axes to death two grooms at a neighboring inn, somehow taking upon himself, through cruel and pointless murder, all the demons that have possessed Mother Joan and her nuns.

Loosely based on a celebrated case in 17th century France (which Aldous Huxley skillfully described ten years ago in his historical narrative. The Devils of Loudun), this picture, set and filmed in Poland, is already celebrated throughout Europe and last year won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Its writerdirector, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, is being compared with Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman. In Poland, the Communist press hailed Joan of the Angels? with expectable enthusiasm, while a Roman Catholic prelate called it “a dirty glove thrown in the face of the church.” It is, more exactly, a nearly successful work of art, ultimately confusing, relentlessly ambiguous, but strong and moving; and it uses its bizarre theme as a metaphor to probe toward the vague but universal demons that can rise in any man and drive him insane. Listening to all the mad nuns singing their beautiful liturgies in clear and healthy young voices, a villager suggests: “Perhaps there are no devils in the convent after all”—just women.

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