Mother Joan of the Angels screens at 7:00 p.m. at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive on Wed. June 25 as part of the series ‘Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’
screens at 7:00 p.m. at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive on Wed. June 25 as part of the series ‘Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’

It seems like only yesterday that I was bemoaning the recent dearth of nun movies. And yet here I am a mere month later, once again writing about the Brides of Christ – this time of the genus a dæmonio vexatus– thanks to the recent digital restoration of Matka Joanna od aniolów (Mother Joan of the Angels), screening at 7:00 p.m. at Pacific Film Archive on Wed. June 25 as part of the series ‘Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’.

Based on Aldous Huxley’s semi-fictional novel ‘The Devils of Loudon,’ Mother Joan of the Angels depicts an extraordinary popular delusion breaking out in Poland during the 17th century. A grim existentialist examination of repressed desire and madness, the film has previously only been available on a grainy and rather scratchy British DVD. Hopefully the restoration will be a revelation.

Times are treacherous at a remote convent in the Polish countryside. Father Garniec has come to a sticky end, condemned for sorcery and burned at the stake for committing unspeakable sins with the nuns in his charge. His replacement is Father Joseph (Mieczyslaw Voit), under orders from church hierarchy to restore Godly order to the nunnery. Greeted by a fellow priest who’s caring for Garniec’s orphaned illegitimate offspring, Joseph must work with four in-residence exorcists to purge Satan and his minions from Mother Superior Joan (Lucyna Winnicka) and her demonically possessed sisters.

The task will not be an easy one: Joan is one of Beelzebub’s most faithful adherents at the convent, a woman proud to boast of the octet of demons inhabiting the clown car of her soul. If Father Joseph can successfully expel them, however, Satan will (or so we are told) also take his leave from the rest of the sisters.

Copious time spent together in prayer and contemplation, however, leads not so much to salvation as to a growing physical attraction between the two celibates. The ascetic Joseph’s faith may require he deny himself all pleasures of the flesh (“it’s greed and gluttony”, he declares, “to devour large pieces” of bread), but even nightly episodes with the cat o’ nine tails can’t quash his feelings for the saucy Mother Superior. Is the spiritual battle a pre-ordained victory for Satan, or can God regain the upper hand?

In one remarkable scene, a desperate Fr. Joseph seeks advice on the matter from a local rabbi (also depicted by Voit), only to leave the ecumenical pow-wow more confused than ever. The rabbi’s mind-blowing theorizing – including the suggestion that perhaps Satan created the world, not God – is more than Joseph can deal with, and the final straw comes when the Jewish holy man pronounces that “you are me and I am you.” Whether or not this means Mother Joan is the Walrus is, unfortunately, left unaddressed.

Directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Mother Joan of the Angels surely confused early sixties audiences with its groundbreaking (and thankfully brief) use of hand-held shakycam. Inaccurately described by some as a horror film, it’s more Bergman than Browning, with Father Joseph traveling into the darkest regions of his own soul in a futile effort to reconcile his lustful feelings for Joan with his love for Christ.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...