The Passion of Joan of Arc review: An impassioned film

Last Updated: Mon, May 27, 2019 11:13 hrs

Carl Theodor Dreyer engages the viewer to sympathise with Joan of Arc's exhaustion, hunger and fear at the hands of her tormentors, and all of it without a single line of spoken dialogue.

A film of intimidating beauty and strangeness, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc lives in a state of near atemporality. The film, set at the time when Joan of Arc was England’s captive, depicts her trial and execution.

In this wordless cinematic poem, Dreyer is not interested in Joan’s triumphs; raising the siege of Orleans, for instance. Instead the Danish master focused on the show trial, the purpose of which was to prove that Joan was a heretic, and that the English had divine right to the French crown. The screenplay condenses the four-month trial and subsequent execution, and the movie states its commitment to authenticity in the opening scene, where a hand leafs through the pages of the original court records kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Such a movie could easily become a tirade of pompous rhetoric. But in the deft hands of the Danish director The Passion of Joan of Arc becomes a narrative about the struggles between the purity of the faithful and the hypocrisy of the institutional. The movie was conceived as a sort of documentary but visualised through the eyes of a true believer. Ergo makeup was forbidden and although the sets were built in considerable detail out of concrete they are never shown. Dreyer himself called the film an act of ‘realized mysticism’ in a 1929 essay.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film made of faces, shot in medium to extreme close-up and sans makeup. Joan face looks pale, something nigh impossible in a black-and-white film and her tormentors are a panoply of squinted eyes, warts and furrowed brows.

Despite the seeming artifice of Dreyer’s method, the film is in fact an act of verisimilitude. This is a film not meant to be seen but to be felt; “watching reality through a keyhole,” as Dreyer once called it.

Dreyer, in his desire to create a cinematic expression to reveal Joan’s persecution, broke and reconstituted the grammar of film itself. 

The word exchanged between Joan and her interlocutors were taken directly from the historical records, as were designs for the costumes and sets, based on 14th-century paintings.

But that level of textual authenticity gives way to an expressionistic distorted entrance into the historical experience as filtered through Joan’s own eyes.

Movies often establish spatial positions by employing a master shot - a wide shot to reveal all of the players within a given frame. The Passion of Joan of Arc, however, is made mostly of close-ups, thereby subverting the vision of space.

Much has been written about the close ups in the movie. Like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey this film too has the quality of a cinematic Rorschach test. It is as much a viewer’s experience, its meaning diffused through the audience’s personal, social and cultural history.

And at the heart of the film’s many close ups though is the face of Renee Maria Falconetti. In a wordless medium, Falconetti’s face is a haunting flicker.

Falconetti, primarily a stage actor, had only had a bit part in a 1917 film before her starring turn in film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Cast wildly against type, Falconetti had been known for light romantic roles. But under the quiet eye of Dreyer’s direction, Falconetti embodies a spiritual anguish worthy of an opera.

Her depiction of Joan’s is dazed yet somehow resolute. When the clerics accuse her of being sent by the Devil, she accuses them of the same. “This woman’s arrogance is outrageous,” one intertitle reads.

Joan's suffering marks her non-compliance with the world as it is and her insistence that it be otherwise. As the film progresses, she wins over or at least brings to shame even her most ardent critics. Even Joan’s persecutors are deeply moved as she recants her forced confession, thus condemning herself to execution. They cannot forgo her execution bound to the letter of their law and yet through their regret know the unjustness of not having followed the spirit of the law.

Joan's situation is not one trapped in time, even though her personal experience might be. Brave individuals have often suffered the ignominy of institutions throughout history. Often both parties claim to believe in the same principles, but in fact more often than not only one of the two puts it in practice. Dostoevsky's 'The Grand Inquisitor' deals with this crisis of individual faith vs institutional conviction as does Sant Dnyaneshwar's tale with the buffalo which witnesses him face a troupe of hollow accusers as well.

Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc is a miracle of the cinematic medium; an immensely moving film that unifies the viewer and Joan's worlds into one shared experience of muted delirium.

Dreyer’s audacious experiment in film and a near mythic performance by Falconetti haunts the viewer long after in a fit of contemplating both the agony and the ecstasy of martyrdom.

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

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