Tuesday, 10 November 2009

LEEDS FILM FEST REVIEW: Mother Joan of the Angels

On my first proper shift at the festival I got to see a rare 1960s black and white Polish film called Mother Joan of the Angels.  I was slightly perturbed about this one, the premise focusing on a convent where ‘all the nuns are possessed by demons’ not particularly being a topic I enjoy watching (I’m still nursing fresh wounds from Paranormal Activity and deep psychological damage sustained by watching The Exorcist much too early in my youth!).  So I approached this one with some trepidation, and ready to make an excuse and leave if it all got a bit head spinny. I do love horror, but there’s something about supernatural horror that really freaks me out, and I can find it truly upsetting at times. I think it’s the uncontrollable element to it – the fact that you can’t understand or control the ‘it’ and everybody is susceptible.

But ah, what I forget is how un-scary old black and white films are, no matter how hard they try to be inventive and creepy with their limited resources (they probably were terrifying in their time, to give them credit). So I quickly dispelled any notion I was going to be scared out of my wits, and was intrigued instead by how the plot itself was delivered.

It was certainly curious.  A priest enters the convent after being briefed on the on-going troublesome situation with the nuns by the locals at a nearby inn. His approach up the hill to the convent and the first sighting of the nuns is heavily veiled (cough) with tension - silence in a horror film is always unnerving - and the camera angles are deliberately surreptitious to maximise suspense and uneasiness. The first encounter between Father Josef and Sister Joan/Mother Superior is a fine bit of acting and cinema as you wait for the demon to manifest itself within her body/behaviour.  She changes, suddenly, by flicking her head back to the camera with a malevolent glint in her eye, and watching her creep along the wall of the enclosure back to the priest in her ‘possessed’ state is such a startling transformation and makes a really effective and memorable scene.

There are some other great scenes as well: nuns scattering musical style as priests fling holy water over them during an exorcism, and particularly standing out, a murder scene where we see the reaction of the horses rather than the victims. Very original!

I did find myself wondering after a while whether the nuns were actually being possessed by demons, or whether the isolation and disciplined diet and lifestyle had sent them all a bit cuckoo. I may have been convinced if the ending hadn’t totally refuted by suspicions! In order to free Mother Joan, the priest takes the demons on himself and goes to monstrous ends to be ‘forever by haunted by the demons’. There’s a line at the beginning of the film where the priest is told by a local fortune teller that he “will love a crooked one” that now holds acute relevance. Can’t get much more crooked than Satan!

To set a precedent for such films as The Exorcist I thought this was an interesting and atmospheric film with some great performances.  Even if it was a bit bonkers-crazy.

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