This article was published first in Issue 26 of Senses of Cinema (May 2003) and re-published in Issue 76 (September 2015)

Mother Joan of The Angels (1961 Poland 105 mins)

Source: ScreenSound Australia Prod Co: Film Polski – ZRF “Kadr” Dir: Jerzy Kawalerowicz Scr: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Tadeusz Konwicki, based on a story by Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz Phot: Jerzy Wójcik Ed: Wieslawa Otocka, Felicja Rogowska Art Dir: Tadeusz Borowczyk, Roman Mann Mus: Adam Walacinski

Cast: Lucyna Winnicka, Mieczyslaw Voit, Anna Ciepielewska, Maria Chwalibóg, Kazimierz Fabisiak, Stanislaw Jasiukiewicz, Zygmunt Zintel, Franciszek Pieczka, Jerzy Kaczmarek

Mother Joan of the Angels is a film against dogma. (…) It is a love story about a man and a woman who wear church clothes, and whose religion does not allow them to love each other. (…) The devils that possess these characters are the external manifestations of their repressed love. (1)

– Jerzy Kawalerowicz

When in 1961 Mother Joan of The Angels won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, its director, Jerzy Kawalerowicz was already an established name of European cinema. After working as an assistant director, most notably on Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (1948), he made his directorial debut in 1951 with Village Mill. His first films were, as Tadeusz Miczka suggests more generally of several Polish directors of the period, the works of an aggressive agitator who tried to convince those “’still not convinced’ about the necessity of building the social order according to the Marxist-Leninist tenet.”(2)

His perspective changed radically when, in 1955, he was appointed artistic director of the ‘Kadr’ production unit, the ‘Polish film school,’ which counted among its members fellow directors Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk and Tadeusz Konwicki. The political thaw, after Stalin’s death, gave the opportunity to these directors to look at reality from new perspectives, free from the confines of Social-Realism. This enabled them to employ such elements as: poetic metaphor (especially symbol and allegory); dreams and memories; expressive formal visual techniques and sound textures; concepts of philosophical existentialism; re-interpretations of History (both recent or ancient); grotesque humor; ambivalence; adaptations of the work of, until then, banned writers; fragmented narratives and other strategies. The cinematic results of this expanding perspective, which gained the attention of critics world-wide who spoke of a ‘national school,’ were, among others, Wajda’s Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Munk’s Eroica (1958) and Bad Luck (1960), and Kawalerowicz’s Night Train (1959) and Mother Joan of the Angels (1961).

Mother Joan of the Angels is based on an actual episode known as “The Possession of Loudun,” in which at least seven Ursuline nuns showed evidence of being possessed by devils and a number of others were considerably affected by the presence of some palpable evil. The matters were dealt with by various specialized exorcists who conducted to the stake Father Urbain Grandier, a famous libertine, who was repeatedly seen in the convent’s corridors seducing and fornicating with the nuns. Accused of witchcraft by a demon, who spoke through Mother Joan of the Angels’ mouth, the priest was tortured and burnt alive in 1634. After Grandier’s death the nuns continued to show signs of being possessed by ‘evil’ forces, such as hysteria and blasphemy, and other exorcists were sent in to combat the devils in Loudun; among them the mystic, Jean-Joseph Suryn. It is from this historical character that the film takes its perspective. (3)

The bell rings for those who are lost

– local peasants

As the credits appear on the screen we see the fragile, lean figure of Father Jozef Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit) prostrated on the floor, saying a litany. From his sack he reaches for a scourge and a scant portion of bread. In these first images Kawalerowicz already employs his chief stylistic devices: characters who directly face the camera, achieving a disturbing intimacy with the spectator; high contrast black-and-white cinematography; mise en scène stripped to its essentials (making us feel, at times, as if we are watching one of Bergman’s spiritual quests); off-screen sounds; and a mobile camera which drives and traps the actors on walls, corridors and corners, placing them in a continuous state of claustrophobia and inescapability.

Father Jozef has arrived at an inn to rest. In the tavern an earthy barmaid (Maria Chwalibóg) makes a prediction: he will meet a maiden who is a mother and his beloved will be hump-backed. This scene reminds me of the arrival of Andrei and the mystics at the tavern in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), a film which simultaneously confronts individual asceticism (economical gestures, silence, fasting) and collective corporality (dance, music, drink, food, sex).

I don’t know the world, so what can I say about it?

– Father Jozef Suryn

On the way to the convent Father Jozef meets a local priest (Kazimierz Fabisiak) who has taken care of Father Grandier’s children, who happen to play alongside the stake at which their father was burnt. (These desolate, almost lunar looking fields were actually filmed in a dump.) He meets with Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka) who is at first introduced almost surreptitiously walking towards the camera; she seems quiet, with precise gestures and pauses (Lucyna Winnicka, who gives an astounding performance in the role, was married to Kawalerowicz at the time). We begin, however, as Father Jozef does, to witness a slow and terrifying transformation: with eyes wide open and a mischievous smile, she asks a question: “What is a truth and what is a lie?” It is when she turns her back to the camera and a slow travelling shot accompanies her exit of the room that we perceive that something is terribly wrong and the transformation now complete. She laughs enticingly, begins to crawl on the walls, spits on father Jozef and leaves (on the blank walls) the mark of her hand. This sequence’s atmosphere of dread, surprise and fantasy is entirely achieved through performance and direction.

The greatest set piece of the film is the exorcism scene. It begins with the nuns entering the frame one-by-one in a trance-like procession, as if floating on air, and ends with the juxtaposition of images of a flight of birds with the frenetic dance of the nuns agitating their white habits, symbolizing freedom and entrapment. In the middle everything is meticulously choreographed by Kawalerowicz to achieve a permanent state of doubt, repression, sin, guilt and pain, of love and loss in an unforgivable and soulless world.

“Every evil that men do towards other men, is nothing compared to the evil that dominates them”

– The Rabbi

Father Jozef’s spiritual doubts, manifested in his constant self-flagellations, lead to a series of encounters with doubles, mirrors and shadows. He faces his reflection in a mirror twice and sees evil within: Possess me,” he intones. Desolate and exhausted he looks for a rabbi (also played by Mieczyslaw Voit) for some guidance; the two men don’t understand each other although the rabbi insists: “I am you and you are me.” Another important doubling in the film is played-out between Mother Joan and another nun, Sister Malgorzata (Anna Ciepielewska). Through this character (who is the only nun who seems not affected by the demons), Kawalerowicz comments on the role of women and their predicament: to face the severities of the cloister, or worse, become subjected to male power, a loveless or forced marriage, brutal sex, beating or abandonment.

“Being possessed pleases me (…) It is me who opens my soul to the demons”

– Mother Joan of the Angels

The film concludes with two more memorable encounters between Mother Joan and Father Jozef. In the first they are praying together, he in a state of beatific communion facing the cross, unaware of her corporeal presence, she facing him, looking at his crossed hands, the movement of his lips, the lines of his profile. This scene speaks concurrently of quiet transcendence and exquisite eroticism. Their last encounter happens when Mother Joan is put behind bars, isolated from the other nuns. Father Jozef kisses her hands, and in an act of love promises to assume all her sins by transferring guilt through a hideous crime that will irredeemably make him prisoner of his (and her) own demons (an act that has the same spiritual release and austere logic as that of a Bressonian character).

The final shot is of a bell occupying the entire frame. The sounds of Mother Joan and Sister Malgorzata crying are substituted for the bell’s ringing. In this new world there is no certainty, we are all lost.


  1. Jerzy Kawalerowicz interviewed by Ray Privett, “God and country (or maybe not),” Kinoeye 1.7 (16 November 2001) http://www.kinoeye.org/01/07/privett07.html.
  2. Tadeusz Miczka, “Cinema Under Political Pressure: A Brief Outline of Authorial Roles in Post-War Feature-Film 1945-1995,” Kinema (Fall 1995) http://arts.uwaterloo.ca/FINE/juhde/micz952.htm.
  3. The historical facts are well documented in Michel de Certeau’s The Possession at Loudun (Chicago Press, 2000). This episode has inspired a series of books, plays, films and paintings: a chapter of Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922), Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun (1952), John R. Whitting’s The Devils (1962), Krzysztof Penderecki’s opera The Devils of Loudun (1969) and Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). (New York: Continuum, 2001), 113.

About The Author

Jorge Didaco is a Brazil-based teacher and writer in theatre, performance and film.

Related Posts