Here is the first silent film to be included in my roundup of movies to see before you die, and if this one doesn’t leave you wrung out like a sponge that’s been soaked in emotional overload, then you may have already bought the farm anyway. You have no doubt encountered some of the other, more sweeping versions of Joan of Arc’s battlefield exploits, and may well be disappointed to discover that this post will not be going over Luc Besson’s epic The Messenger starring the delightful Milla Jovovich. Granted, seeing the star of the Resident Evil franchise in full body armor has its appeal, but the territory we shall be visiting here goes a little deeper. Simply put, Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc puts the human soul, naked, frightened and indestructible, onto 82 minutes of panchromatic film. More after the jump:
Panchromatic film stock had only recently become widely affordable in the late 1920’s. Its sensitivity to all the wavelengths in the color spectrum meant that black & white photography could more realistically render a wider variety of tones. Specific to filmmaker Dreyer’s needs, it allowed him to banish all forms of make up from his set, and get right up into the faces of his cast, whose rawness thus came through in all its documentary-like intensity. And this film is almost all close-ups, which was a daring choice over seventy years ago and would remain equally daring today. But, since Dreyer knew that his entire focus was to be the trial of Joan on charges of heresy, and not on her exploits in the field of battle, there seemed no other choice for pulling the viewer into the world of a condemned woman facing her accusers. Combined with some bizarrely skewed angles and reaction shots that do not match the action against which they are cut, the overall effect is one of extreme disorientation, as well as immersion into an ancient world. Dreyer makes us feel as if we have been granted the privilege of being transported to the 15th century in order to watch the proceedings unfold.
The historical Joan of Arc, later declared a saint, was captured and tried for heresy after claiming that she had been charged directly by God to lead her successful campaigns against the British occupation of France during the Hundred Years’ War. By ecclesiastical laws of the 1400’s, only the church could grant one a state of grace, so Joan’s direct contact with God was seen as both blasphemous and dangerous. Dreyer, with co-writer Joseph Delteil, stays somewhat faithful to the transcripts of Joan’s trial, though veering away from the established record at times to further his themes of martyrdom, the strength of human will and the duplicitous nature of Joan’s detractors. Dreyer, though Danish, is unapologetic about his affection for France’s great hero, and he is clearly making an often biased case for her as he pits her onscreen persona against her interrogators. Mocked by the all-male court, taunted and harassed by her British guards (a depiction that caused the film to be banned in England), Joan’s is the story of a woman whose spiritual agony is played out before our eyes. Hated (and, at the end, feared and perhaps even respected) by her chief accuser, Bishop Pierre Cauchon (the remarkable screen presence of Eugène Silvain), Joan’s anguish grows ever more unbearable as she is asked to deny what she knows in her heart to be true. When, confronted by her own need for redemption through the blessing of Holy Communion, she gives in and recants, it tears her apart so much that she takes it back. This, to the dismay of the court, seals her fate of death at the stake.
The hints of Joan’s future impact on the liberation of France are supplied by an angry mob of townspeople who riot when their symbol of hope is burned alive. There is no historical documentation of any such riot, but the sequence of mayhem intercut with Joan’s fiery demise makes for one of the most painfully beautiful montages in cinema history. (Dreyer was openly admiring of Sergei Eisenstein, the great Russian pioneer of editing juxtapositions, and spoke often of Eisenstein’s influence on his work.) It is transcendently devastating.
Finally, then, there is Joan herself, embodied as if through astral projection by the impossibly gifted Maria (credited as Melle) Falconetti, who would retire from acting after this performance. Whether this abandonment of the craft was because of the role’s inherent emotional demands, or Dreyer’s obsessive directing style, or neither, is open to question. (Dreyer required all of his actors to work off and on for six months-the length of the actual trial-and would not release Falconetti from the draining experience of having her hair roughly shorn off with scissors.) In a film comprised almost entirely of close-ups, Falconetti not only commands our attention but demands the temporary surrender of our inner lives to her sorrowful interpretation. Her face, and the struggle it conveys, remains one of cinema’s most iconic images.
Misunderstood in its time, wrongly marketed as an art film because of its unconventional style, the film can now be seen as having immediate and obvious resonance; easily tapping into a universal experience. In Dreyer’s lifetime, he had resigned himself to the idea of The Passion of Joan of Arc never reaching his desired audience, and, because so many of the prints were lost or destroyed by fire, to never being able to reassemble the final cut on which he had intended. Incredibly, an almost-complete print of the director’s original version was discovered in 1981 in the janitor’s closet of an Oslo mental hospital, and that is the print we can now see on DVD today. While we may be prone to giggle at this strange concurrence-a film about a woman who claimed she talked to God clearly having been shown to people who may have also heard voices-it is actually the final testimony to the film’s power. Dreyer and Falconetti, it seems, managed to depict on film what it must be like for a tortured soul to remain true to itself, as difficult and as alienating as such a decision might be.
James Napoli is an author, filmmaker and teacher whose third book Violation! The Ultimate Ticket Book is now available.