About halfway through Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a sequence in which Joan, during a brief respite from her ecclesiastical inquisitors, is mocked and tormented by a trio of English soldiers, who place a straw crown on her head and an arrow in her hand as a mock scepter while ridiculing her claim to be God’s daughter.
Not only does the scene obviously echo the mockery of the Son of God, with his crown of thorns and the reed scepter, the medium close-up of the crowned Joan visually evokes a key shot from an early French Jesus film: the Ecce Homo close-up in the Pathé The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902/05), directed by Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nonguet. (While the shot in the Pathé film is a rare close-up, Dreyer’s shot is notable for the opposite reason; it is a rare sustained shot of Joan that pulls back for more than her face and the tops of her shoulders.)
This visual echo is one of the most explicit signs that Dreyer intends Joan’s trial and execution to be seen, in keeping with his title, in light of the passion of Jesus. (This motif is carried to the film’s very last shot, with Joan’s stake in the foreground and a cross on a chapel dome in the background.) At the same time, Dreyer emphasizes his subject’s non-divine frailty: Joan’s crown is braided straw rather than thorns, and, while Christ is flogged and beaten with rods, Joan’s tormenters tickle her ear with a straw.)
I can think of films with religious themes that are more theologically profound than The Passion of Joan of Arc, but none more evocative of what it means to share the sufferings of Christ. The film is more than a dramatization, more than a biopic, more than a documentary: It is a spiritual portrait, almost a mystical portrait, of a Christlike soul in her hour of trial.
The experience of watching The Passion of Joan of Arc brings me closer to Good Friday than any filmed depiction of the actual trials and sufferings of Christ I have seen. In writing about this film, more than most films, I find myself trying to express something of the experience of watching the film, as much as the film itself. The viewer’s attention is directed inward, in a contemplative, chastened way, like praying the Stations of the Cross or the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.
This is not just because of the subject matter, but because of the singular visual approach uniquely identified with this film. A transcript of the dialogue, which condenses the many sessions of Joan’s trial into what appears to be a single day, would be deceptively easy to follow. Visually, though, Dreyer uses a deliberately disorienting style at odds with expected cinematic rules — a little like the notion of reverse perspective in Byzantine iconography.
Byzantine perspective seems to be something of a myth (for one thing, the rules of perspective weren’t worked out until the Italian Renaissance). But Dreyer’s contravention of established principles of cinematic storytelling was deliberate.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.