‘She cures me and I don’t need my pacemaker any longer,’ sings an elderly patient in this expressionistic film opera, directed by the Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mundruczo (Pleasant Days) and composed by frequent collaborator Zsófia Tallér. The woman in question, Johanna (Orsi Tóth), is a former heroin-addict, who, having slipped into a drug-related coma is miraculously reborn. Asked by her doctor (Zsolt Trill) to stay on at the underground Budapest hospital as a nurse, and with no memories of her past, she discovers her remarkable gift: she is able to heal the sick through performing sexual favours. Unsurprisingly Johanna becomes immensely popular with the male inmates, but the staff is furious that her non-scientific approach is reaping such clinical results.
Relying on a modern operatic score and lyrics, which often ram home the film’s sentiments, the undeniably ambitious Johanna represents an attempt by Mundruczo et al to rework the legend of Joan of Arc for a contemporary era, with doctors and nurses rather than priests representing the establishment that is rocked by the young heroine’s God-given challenge to their authority. There are strong echoes here of Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom (the Kafkaesque medical setting) and Breaking the Waves (a female offering up her body for spiritual purposes). With its committed performances and striking mise-en-scene (the sickly green hues of the subterranean corridors and the wards; the way the white-capped Johanna is lit to contrast with the pitch-black surroundings), Johanna is something of a curate’s egg that deserves to be filed alongside Mark Dornford-May’s transposition of Bizet to the shantytowns of Johannesburg, U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha.
GFT, Glasgow from Mon 27 Nov.