4 Stars out of 4
How old are you, Joan? asks one of the judges around the beginning of Carl T. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Joan, cornered in her own (transcendent) world, responds: “nineteen…I think.” Here is a stranded character, Joan of Arc, known in mythology as a hero and legend, but through the film considerably naive and possessed.
The film is a portrait of expressions, with a predominant use of closeups to emphasize Joan’s inner pathos and her arbiters are knotted in closeups bringing out their moles and warts. They curse loudly, lambaste Joan in tirades of religious rhetoric. She’s a blaspheme of God and a work of the Devil. Is she? Joan is played by Maria Falconetti, a role deemed to be the greatest female performance in all of cinema. Falconetti embodies Joan in which it is impossible for us to feel deepest sympathy for her, but Dreyer never discourages us to have a dry cry for her. Falconetti’s performance is so brilliant because she is one of few actors to convey “the passion” with a blank face.
Her Joan is on trial for heresy. She led the French Army until 1430, was hailed a Catholic saint, and even impacted the coronation of Charles VII after winning various battles during the Hundred Years’ War. Now, in 1431 Joan is imprisoned at the Castle of Rouen and her very country has caved in on her. Her glorious legacy is deemed the work of the devil because of her claims to have visions from God. For the French, no human, inasmuch a woman could sought such a gift. The French ecclesiastical courts then enforced that she stand upon them, pitiably, and confess.
What is interesting is how the courtroom scenes ares deconstructed in ways no courtroom drama has ever decided to emulate. With the exception of a magnificent lateral tracking shot for Dreyer to give the audience coordinates of the courtroom, the remainder of shots are locked in closeup, detaching the audience from the ‘drama’ and enveloping facial reactions. The friars and judges were depicted intemperate, stubborn, and stout as they spat on Joan and yelled in her face to confess she was a fake and a work of everything immoral.
How Joan of Arc is depicted in contemporary art is the valiant woman who led French male soldiers to prominent battle victories. Falconetti’s Joan has no winning in her, and our only image of her is a crestfallen face, making it impossible to associate Dreyer’s Joan as a typical war hero. But what Dreyer brilliantly does is refuse to let the audience identify with Joan. We observe her from such a close angle, it is as if we are breathing down her neck.
But the camera remains stationary in front of her and never cuts to her point of view. Most of the film involves her staring upwards, into ‘the heavens’ we can assume. What is she looking at? Dreyer never shows us because he cannot. No one could grasp Joan’s spiritual abilities. Even Joan could not make a definition of them. Dreyer frames the judges one-at-a-time mostly, with them entering the frame from below (descendants of Hell of course), and barking off frame like rabid dogs. We have no comprehension of who they are yelling at. We assume Joan, but Dreyer never allows to ‘embody’, just behold her, and stare at her enigmatic-impassive gestures.
The rumour is that Dreyer put Falconetti through hell (which is fitting because Joan’s experiences here are similar) to manifest that blank expression, to convey that the pain was buried beneath and into her tarnished soul. When her eyes gaped open, Falconetti suggests pain and the beauty of seeing into the light of God. Rumour has it Dreyer made Falconetti kneel on stone to force that inner anguish from her. Acting that internalized sometimes can only be provoked through actual agony.
The remainder of the film is Joan’s journey to be executed, where the fear of death coerces her to surrender and confess what would ruin her existence. When she signs that confession, our heart drops miles. Where else could Joan go? She is sentenced to eternal imprisonment, and her head is shaved removing the last beautiful remnant of her appearance. When Joan watches her hair being swept away, she engages in a very important, yet subtle transformation. Courage flies out of her and she yells at a servant to get the clerics. She takes back her confession and ‘lies’ to cover a lie: she is not sent by the devil, but by God. Ironically, that means her death.
There is a sense of apocalyptic doom when Joan is burned. A gravedigger makes Joan’s hole, while Dryer shows the cross of Christ emerge slightly behind the top of the dirt – like the setting sun of Joan’s sanctity and religious moralism in France. The people are outraged, as Joan is burnt and the blazing fire creates a photonegative image of Joan. Her vivid face in closeup is obscured by a long shot of smoke shielding her. Interestingly enough, Joan was, under religious ideology, to have dispersed to heaven because the flames protected her soul from the Devil. Brilliant symbolism.
There is something uncanny about The Passion of Joan of Arc. Nothing much happens: the courtroom and the execution are simple set ups but expel this terrible feeling of woe and endless death and macabre. The hallways and doorways are framed as an offensive on Joan, cornering her into a world raging upon her. Her death was a deliverance. Dreyer also has a plethora of dialogue to emphasis the outrage of the soul and the verbosity of the clerics. Joan is succinctly spoken and speaks every word that dangles in her thoughts. The irony is she confesses all her thoughts to the clerics and they shun her as a mystical fraud.
I would not step away from someone calling The Passion of Joan of Arc the best silent film, perhaps moving image, ever made. It has this unearthly ability to underline this ‘passion’ while never really exploding into simple emotions. Everything and all expressions are so repressed, mostly by Joan. We even get one sympathizing cleric, who we know is so by his benign, commiserating look. He gives balance to a film that is composed with distortions, chaos, and fear.
Falconetti would play one role – this one – and die in 1946. Fittingly, she was cremated. As for Dreyer, this is easily his greatest work. His other films I have seen, Vampyr, Gertrud, and Ordet, incorporate melodrama how this film does – but The Passion of Joan of Arc embodies it with tender subtlety. This is a rare silent film that is about history but does not get caught up in facts. It’s about a character, but then also not interested in determining who she is, but who she may be.
Watching this film is not a chore. It is a discovery. The first time I saw it, I was in a cinemathequé where a piano player improvised a score to it. An impromptu moment of bliss and genius. It makes you realize: this film does not belong in history but in the cosmos of cinema that, like Joan, seem to have been to heaven and back.