The only other Jerzy Kawalerowicz film I’ve seen is Night Train, which I liked but has nothing on Mother Joan of the Angels.
The most recent film this one reminds me of is the great Beyond The Hills. Not only do both deal with exorcism in some way, but they’re sparse films, deliberately paced, and feature a dog-barking-heavy soundtrack.
Mother Joan of the Angels is about corruptibility and sacrifice. It’s not The Exorcist’s type of exorcism, but rather something that Polanski or Tarkovsky (two guys I don’t often think of together, but here that odd marriage works) might’ve put on-screen.
Father Jozef (Mieczyslaw Voit) is sent to a small village convent where many of the nuns, led by Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka, Kawalerowicz’s wife) seem to have fallen under the influence of demons.
Kawalerowicz’s film is in stark black and white and full of haunting images that really make use of deep shadows and the angelic white of the nuns outfits. His horror is the existential sort that creeps into your mind not necessarily because of some horned satan waiting to show its face, but rather because of an unseen dread telegraphed through the strange happenings captured in carefully designed frames.
An eerily empty hall (empty because Mother Joan is entering)-
-is soon littered with the prone bodies of nuns, the overhead making them appear as fallen birds:
Mother Joan is captured peering at Father Jozef (and thereby, from a camera perspective, us) over hanging white sheets. The frame allows her to appear and disappear from our view:
Kawalerowicz isn’t only about wide-shots. This one gives me nightmares:
Mother Joan, fully in the grips of her demons, shot in tight CU, eye-rolling performance on full display. It’s a chilling still.
The director gets some of his scares from frames like this one:
A minor character eyes us up in the foreground. The white veil draws our eyes to the middle-ground (what’s happening there…?), and the fire, well in the background, keeps our gaze ping-ponging between all three planes. It’s an uncomfortable shot and the dense negative space adds to that feeling.
Voit gives a heartfelt performance as Father Jozef. At one point in the film the young priest visits the local rabbi. It’s shot in true chiaroscuro:
Voit here plays both priest and rabbi, so the shot-reverse-shot is a conversation with himself. This isn’t just because Voit’s a capable actor, but rather so Kawalerowicz can get plenty of subtext out of the dialogue. Voit is questioning his religion at the same time that he is literally questioning himself: