The metaphysical malady that plagues Jerzy Kawalerowicz's 1961 Cannes-winning feature is a familiar one, begging for comparisons with the more widely-seen exorcism pictures that followed in its wake. But even as the possessed antagonist of its title feverishly courts Satan in a manner that's wholly reminiscent of a certain William Friedkin film, it's clear that Mother Joan of the Angels is cut from a different, unique cinematic cloth.
Kawalerowicz's mélange of unbridled eroticism, anti-dogmatic rage, and ecclesiastical chaos is disconcertingly repressed by the devotional austerity that overwhelms his mise-en-scène. The film consequently teeters on the brink - its delirious psychology threatening to explode into some sort of expressionistic cornucopia, but ultimately settling for a visual vacuum that harbours only claustrophobic desolation and confrontation (characters frequently stare into the camera, initiating a jarring intimacy with the viewer). A symbolically-charred stake amidst a barren field is the ominous result of this discrepancy between form and content: those who wish to traverse the distance between the corporeal and ethereal face a date with a form of social barbarism that masquerades as justice or destiny. Against this context of spiritual subjugation, the blasphemous hysteria of Mother Joan and her Sisters borders on the rational - an understandable result of their stifled passions. Human needs are disfigured into satanic desires, exacerbated by an institutional framework that values condemnation over empathy.
When the pious Father Jozef enters into this hermetic netherworld, he does so with the intent of saving Mother Joan's damned soul. In actuality, it's his devout veneer that comes undone, unleashing a torrent of doubts and uncertainties that culminates with a provocative dream sequence featuring an angry rabbi (the two individuals, it turns out, are not dissimilar). What transpires alongside this scenario is a wholly unorthodox romance that finds mutual longing displaced into medieval Catholicism's more ritualistic domains. Thus, Jozef and Joan's answer to the sex scene is to self-flagellate their naked torsos at opposite ends of a room, before staring awkwardly at one another after their suffering is complete. Remove the doctrines that they adhere to, and these individuals seem woefully ill-equipped to deal with the pressures of reality.
Tellingly, an image of a downward-facing human cross (Jozef) opens the film, promising an inverted transcendence that's actualized by the conclusion's final, unsettling act of kindness. Following the discovery of moral destitution in a fundamentalist society then, Mother Joan exalts only one solution: compassion. But Kawalerowicz's critical view of static religious ideals lends vigour to the delivery of his material, and in its unnervingly subdued soundscapes he finds only the figurative howls of internal torment. How can compassion survive in a world of such disarray? Mother Joan of the Angels casts its glare upon the increasing divergence between man and institution, and suggests that the former holds the true key to enlightenment. Even then however, we may not find the answers that we're looking for.