Mother Joan of the Angels (1961)

I know it’s reasonably late at night now and it should be getting colder, but I’d almost swear this film has made the temperature in here plummet… brrr. Anyway, I bought The Devils today and we’ll see that in due course, but tonight I watched this slightly earlier retelling of the tale of the devils of Loudun, transposed to Poland. It’s not a literal rendering of that event, rather an adaptation of it, and produced, obviously, under markedly different conditions to what Ken Russell could (just about) get away with a decade later. As such, it’s a markedly less hysterical film, which is fine; Jerzy Kawalerowicz obviously just had differing concerns, such as the creation of a sustained mood of subtle disquiet. Although the film feels rather leisurely as the tale unfolds (priest comes to convent to investigate claims of possession at a convent, exorcism ensues), once I got into its rhythm I started to feel quite unsettled by it; there’s a scene where the priest has a confrontation with a rabbi—both roles played by the same actor—that really rattled me. I don’t think I’d classify the film as horror per se like IMDB does, but it unnerved me in a way comparatively few “real” horror films do… I can’t quite explain why but the whole film is suffused with a sense of Things Not Being Quite Right, though there are relatively few overt signs of this wrongness; I think the sense of isolation the film creates is a big part of it, though. It’s a few centuries in the past, there’s remarkably little sense of a bigger outside world, and whatever’s happening is doing so a long way from civilisation. In the limited world Kawalerowicz depicts, it seems equally likely that literal demons are at work as it does that the film’s ultimately tragic events are the product of madness, and that love (which the rabbi says is at the heart of everything) and madness are not exactly far apart. Grim stuff.

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