The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
For a person who isn’t religious, it can be tricky to describe spiritual or transcendent experiences in art and film. Of course they exist, they affect a broad number of people very differently (it does not seem to me that one can “decide” to create them), and in the case of a work that intends to evoke the emotions of a person who claimed to be touched by and in communication with God, they edge close to blurring lines of secularism if rendered effectively. A genuine physical reaction to a piece of music, a passage of poetry, a particularly immersive section of film is in some ways the closest approximation some of us will ever have to what others claim to experience in a church, and certainly anyone can probably name something — a painting, say — that hushes them into a sort of sputtering reverence regardless of whether it reflects anything about their own ideology or experience of the world. Pure beauty itself can overwhelm and move you.
In the case of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc — in some ways the peak of silent film as an art form, and certainly the movie of the 1920s that most easily overcomes its age — we have an almost undeniably moving, enchanting narrative work that tells a true story about dogged, unyielding faith; whether it is itself a strongly religious film is another question. What isn’t in question is that it’s lyrical, profound, unforgettably affecting while avoiding grand gestures steadfastedly save those mundane horrors of humanity itself. Its peculiar, alienating, singular directorial style sets it apart from even a strikingly beautiful Biblical picture like Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew, let alone Hollywood bones to the faithful along the lines of The Song of Bernadette and Ben-Hur. Indeed, all of its depth of feeling is born of bare, elegant minimalism — both in its slightly surreal visuals and in the unfussy act of finely detailed storytelling.
The great Danish director Dreyer had crafted many films remarkable for their sparse beauty, among the finest being the romance of art and domesticity Michael and the slightly sinister, mostly sweet and lighthearted The Parson’s Widow, but it was his 1925 drama Master of the House that led to his commission to make a film in France. Dreyer chose the then-recently sainted Joan of Arc as a subject and read extensively of her short life. Born around 1412, Jeanne d’Arc became a French icon thanks to her role in hastening the end of the Siege of Orleans during the Hundred Years War (as well as turning the Anglo-French rivalry into a holy war of sorts), which led in part to the coronation of King Charles VII and eventually France’s victory in the war; when she was captured in May of 1430 and turned over to an English court, because of her refusal to recant her allegiance to France or her claim to a position as a messenger and agent of God, she was executed.
Dreyer’s screenplay is based on the transcripts of her trial, which occurred over a year and a half but is compressed neatly for the film. The script itself therefore is a relatively dispassionate retelling of events, capturing in title cards Joan’s testimony and the leering, hostile questioning she endures, as well as a couple of major turning points: a forgery of a letter from the King is read to Joan but fails to convince her; under threat of torture, she faints but does not relent; and at one point, she agrees to sign a confession which she then quickly reverses. But none of this is the essence of Joan’s story as envisioned by Dreyer, it’s merely the historical backdrop for a much higher flight. It doesn’t much matter whether an audience member believes Joan is a divine agent or if she’s simply crazy and naive, or whether the same audience member feels much investment at all in the realities of a war that’s now six centuries in the past, which (history majors aside) is highly unlikely. One’s own religious beliefs are incidental to the empathetic feelings that become exercised by Dreyer’s film.
Its distinctive appearance does imply stakes well beyond those of a typical courtroom drama. Most of the story is rendered through closeups, dramatically framed and often terrifying, with faces that seem more intricately worn down than real people; rather than the painterly conceptions so familiar from works in art museums and textbooks depicting Joan’s time, the film’s photography by the prolific Rudolph Maté is chaotic, unbalanced, which creates even more of an unsettled feeling when laid against the hauntingly spare set design (outrageously expensive for the time). There is no straightforward sense of beauty — if anything, the opposite; the film revels in confrontational hideousness — and Dreyer’s idea of steeping a viewer in a period stands in sharp relief against that of, for example, Griffith in Intolerance. His portrait of this trial owes more to F.W. Murnau, Karl Freund and Robert Wiene in its jagged, unforgiving design.
All this in turn provides the starkest of contrasts to the essence of the tale: the face of Renee Falconetti as Joan herself. Wholly absent of even the modest glamour provided her by the painter Jean Ingres or (of course) the many Hollywood dramatizations, Falconetti’s shorn, makeup-free visage heads an entire league of unforgettable faces but becomes the most searing and burned-in image among so many here. Her glassy eyes tell of a pious life lived in a world apart, of confidence in something beyond the world known to her captors and inquisitors. The setting of Falconetti’s simple, devoted, defiant Joan against the bold violence surrounding her is the source of a drama Dreyer knows is towering and forceful. The agelessness that results has the effect of rendering the film’s silence utterly irrelevant, even invisible; even seen without a score, which is ideal, the film seems somehow to fill all of the senses.
Falconetti only made one other film, eleven years earlier, and otherwise engaged mostly in performing and producing comedies on stage, which is hard to picture; The Passion of Joan of Arc had the perhaps unwelcome effect of making her immortal. Though she’s nearly twice her character’s age, she occupies her part so wholly — the performance constructed carefully by the actress and Dreyer based on extensive filmed rehearsals — it becomes difficult to witness, as though we’re a party to something. She does as much work as Dreyer does in distilling the Joan of Arc legend down to the essence of something purer, more cinematic and universal. In the game of higher-minded, unbending detachment she plays against the English as they pepper her with absurdly petty queries about men’s clothes and oath-taking, she presents the most admirable sort of resilience, making it more moving yet when she later briefly cops to the human impulse toward survival over her own principles. Perhaps even more importantly, laying the wide-eyed, morally righteous face of adolescence against a room of decadent-looking, smug and aged-out bloodthirsty pugs renders this, in all its directness of emotion and idealization of standing by a conviction to a degree that may have the outward appearance of foolishness, the Utopian ideal of a teen movie: Rebel Without a Cause in the years after the Black Death. Without a doubt, the stuffy formalism in the presentation of heroic conviction in A Man for All Seasons feels less alive, has less to teach us and couldn’t get to our hearts anyway.
The absolutely minute attention to detail and impeccable judgment of Dreyer’s screenplay is constantly in evidence onscreen, in a film that breathes but also constantly moves, and defines Joan and the world around her in under an hour and a half without stepping once onto a battlefield or breaking the spell with too much background, neither necessitated nor welcome. The moments that linger are all defined in visuals rather than words; who ever forgets the blood seeping from Joan’s arm after she takes fever? The horrifying relentlessness of the torture devices? The breastfeeding child momentarily turning its head to see Joan burning only to quickly turn back, oblivious? Of course the rolling shots of sinister men who might be a cause for humor, for editorial cartooning, if a death’s head did not seem to be projected over each of them?
Dreyer owes something to early horror, certainly, but also to Sergei Eisenstein; he and Marguerite Beauge cut the film first to the rhythm of Joan’s own overflowing emotional state, peaking in the torture chamber just before she passes out, with fast-cut imagery of the churning machines of pain, but later to the world that watches her die and turns her into a martyr. The smoke of the stake seems to engulf both the civilization onscreen and those of us watching from a distance of centuries, and all the while her increasingly distant shadow somehow gazes toward us, as the film grows increasingly manic, increasingly grief-stricken, until the loss of life can only be defined in a dispassionate crawl message about Joan’s future as a hero of France and a saint of the Catholic Church that sees us out. Meanwhile, what we’re left with is something that, depending on the viewer, may have almost nothing to do with what we know of Joan or what she means to us — rather, we’re left breathless by the feeling of having witnessed something out of time, something genuinely otherworldly, a journey to a brink of reality and unreality that films about the past almost never approach. It’s an aching, glorious experience, as cinema and as life.