To witness Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is to glimpse the soul of a saint in her hour of trial. 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 Christ-like soul sharing in the sufferings of Christ.
The experience of watching this film brings me closer to Good Friday than any filmed depiction of the actual trials and sufferings of Christ to date. I know of movies more theologically profound or more pious, but none more evocative of what it means to share the sufferings of Christ.
In writing about The Passion of Joan of Arc, more than with other films, I find myself trying to express something of the experience of watching the film, rather than focusing on the film itself. Many films, perhaps most, focus the viewer’s attention outward, on what the filmmakers are trying to do or express, on the narrative or themes of the film, on its technical achievements or imaginative force, and so forth. Watching this film, one’s attention is directed inward — not in an introspective or self-conscious way, but in a contemplative, chastened way, as when one prays the stations of the cross or the sorrowful mysteries.
Why does the film have this effect? Part of the reason is Dreyer’s visual approach, which makes it difficult to get one’s bearings and, like reverse perspective in iconography, challenges the viewer to attend fully, to contemplate rather than anticipate, to see the image in a unique way. Continual extreme closeups on the actors’ faces create a fearful intimacy, while counter-intuitive camerawork and editing dispenses with expected cinematic rules of continuity (e.g., shooting intercut footage of two people talking from opposite sides, or carrying over objects or landmarks from shot to shot).
At the same time, Dreyer had a passion for truthfulness. He wanted The Passion of Joan of Arc to feel not like a movie but like documentary footage. He didn’t simply reenact scenes from Joan’s trials, he virtually recreated them. The 1927 shoot proceeded chronologically rather than according to production convenience, and lasted six months, about the same time-frame as the real trials. Verbal exchanges between Joan and her interlocutors were taken directly from the historical records of her trials, and the costumes and props, based on 14th-century paintings, are also authentic. Only some stylized elements in the minimalistic sets conspicuously violate the film’s documentary-like persuasiveness.
Because of the chronological production schedule, actors playing (for example) monastics were forced to maintain their tonsures throughout, just as real monks would have done, instead of simply shooting all their scenes in a week and then growing their hair back. Makeup, a necessity for ordinary black-and-white film, was rendered unnecessary by use of special panchromatic black-and-white filmstock (i.e., a filmstock sensitive to a greater range of the visible spectrum than normal black and white, though the end result is still black and white) that captured every pore and wrinkle and nuance of skin texture with pitiless clarity and detail.
The key to the film’s sense of authenticity, though, is the haunting face of Maria Falconetti, whose transcendent evocation of the Maid of Orleans has been called the greatest performance ever filmed. It is a haunting face because it is a haunted face: a face overshadowed by visions, by fear, by death. Crushing exhaustion, visionary ecstasy, peasant cunning, and unconcealed terror wash over her features.
Reportedly, her passion is not entirely simulated: Dreyer is said to have been pitiless in getting the nuances of emotion he wanted, and would make Falconetti kneel for extended periods on hard stone in an effort to get just the right expression of inner suffering. Her sorrow in the hair-cutting scene, too, contains genuine emotion, for she had begged Dreyer not to make her really cut her hair for the scene.
The dialogue, though adapted from the historical records of the trials, is not always theologically transparent, and may sometimes leave viewers confused. For example, in the film it’s unclear why the judges are so insistent on Joan saying the Our Father, or why she first refuses, but later does so.
According to Dreyer’s screenplay, the prayer is for the judges a litmus test to see if she is possessed by the devil, and Joan’s early refusal is due to overwhelming emotion at the thought of her mother, who first taught her the prayer. However, the historical records of Joan’s trial indicate that Joan repeatedly said that she would say her Our Father only to a priest in confession — a right that was apparently being unlawfully denied her.
Joan’s best lines, though, are faithfully reproduced, from her disarming replies to questions about St. Michael’s appearance to her great rejoinder to the question whether she is in the state of grace: "If I am not, may God put me there! And if I am, may God so keep me!" In this film, Joan again stands accused, and her long silences and simple answers continue to frustrate and confound.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.