La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc

(The Passion of Joan of Arc, France - 1928)

by James Cobo

Cast: Renee "Maria" Falconetti
Genre: Drama/Biopic
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Screenplay: Carl Theodor Dreyer & Joseph Delteil
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Composer: -
Runtime: 114 minutes

One of the common misconceptions about film history is that "art films" never really emerged until the '60s, when Andy Warhol set out on his quests to film the Empire State Building or a sleeping man. The reality is that art films have existed as long as the medium itself: films that tried to do more than relay a story through light; films that tried to BE more than ink on celluloid.

And yes, it's not uncommon for films of this genre to turn out pedantic and dull. Frequently, they seem to get caught up in the minutiae of the art of film, throwing in beautiful - yet excessively masturbatory - shots or screwing with the perception of space and time for no other reason than clearing the cache of audience expectations. But to consign all art films to the trashcan - like an increasing number of my friends seem to be doing - as a result of a few miserable projects is depressing, and tragic. These people, for instance, would never see The Passion of Joan of Arc.

On the surface, The Passion of Joan of Arc (tPoJoA) doesn't seem to be an art movie. It is a silent movie, and thanks to seventy-five years of conditioning, silent cinema seems quaint and simple in comparison to its progeny, which take advantage of the sense of sound. This is, to put it mildly, absurd. This film is possibly the most complex work of cinema I've ever seen. And paradoxically, it achieves this complexity by trimming away all the fat. There is a story in tPoJoA - to be certain, there is a damn great story - but it's very tightly focused. In fact, the story is so tightly focused that under a microscope, it appears to only exist to buttress the central animus of the film.

But to understand that animus, as with the animus of all truly great films, it's important to know the background of the film in question. tPoJoA is, unsurprisingly, the story of Joan of Arc, the illiterate 19-year-old French peasant girl who came out of nowhere to lead the French to victory over the English in the early 15th century. Her life is one of the most well known in history, and as a byproduct has been translated to the screen many, many times. Even by the film's release in 1928, Joan's life was old hat - there had been at least three prior tellings.

But Dreyer's magnum opus would be wholly unlike any version of Joan's life that came before or after. Unlike most of the biopics of Joan, tPoJoA completely excises the lurid, dramatic battles, as well as the relationship between Joan and the dauphin. tPoJoA only exists on the last day of Joan's life. The sum total of the movie is Joan's trial and incineration (with the exception of a riot following her execution, one of the few fabricated occurrences in the film).

The intrigue in this already-focused narrative is only enhanced by its now-mythic source text. One of the supreme ironies surrounding Joan is that we possibly know more about her than any other illiterate in history, because a text of every question asked at her inquest the trial before the Catholic judges survives. Every time Joan speaks before the tribunal or in public, her words are translations of what she actually said. Dreyer's film, then, is on one level a meticulous reconstruction of the last hours of Joan of Arc, an intent he underscores by placing the image of the text of Joan's inquest at the very beginning of the film.

As a reconstruction, tPoJoA is the peer of any other historical film ever made, thanks largely to the attention to detail. Dreyer went to fanatical lengths to ensure realism in his film - forbidding the use of makeup, requiring his actors portraying the judges to shave their heads in the style of the time, even forcing the cameras to continue rolling when the most famous fly in film history lands on Joan's face. Dreyer's monomaniacal drive for realism even led to bloodshed - when Joan falls ill and bloodletting is prescribed, Dreyer ordered that the understudy for the part of Joan actually cut her arm open.

Of course, all the bloodletting and bald-heads in the world would mean nothing without performances backing the realism up. Moreover, the performances would be further hindered by tPoJoA's reliance on dialogue, despite being a silent film. But Dreyer again refuses to settle for anything less than brilliance. The roles in the film are essentially divided into two camps - the judges and Joan. In many ways, the role of the judges is the less conventional - they are essentially forced to act as an ensemble of nameless faces, all none-too-subtle extensions of a single, animated mindset of the Church, or France at-large, or more likely both. But simply because the judges' roles are more unconventional does not make them superior to the single greatest performance ever laid down on celluloid: Renee Falconetti's Joan of Arc. Her performance in the role is literally transcendent; she effervesces through space, time, and substantiality to literally become a 15th century peasant girl. One of the common problems in all other movies dealing with Joan is that they glamorize her. Not Falconetti. She sits terrified in her chair, plain as deep southern dirt, looking for all the world like she was just plucked out of the fields. She's not attractive; she's earthy, realistic, genuine, coarse, and utterly convincing. And more than anyone else, she connects to the central animus of what makes this film great, and what makes it great art.

One of the many ironies surrounding Joan is that despite the fact that her campaigns did more to preserve Catholicism in France than the efforts of anyone else since Charlegmane, she remained unrecognized by the Church until 1919. This film, coming so close on the heels of her sanctification, was, to the great surprise of nobody, attacked vigorously by Church censors, who forced Dreyer to chop large chunks off of the film. Moreover, this film was created as part of the Film Europe campaign, which aimed to create a pan-European style by allowing international European talent to collaborate on films. As a result, the part of the French saint is played by an Italian actress, and directed by a Danish director. The French, of course, felt that Dreyer would tarnish Joan's legend, as he was non-French, and therefore unable to understand the importance of Joan to the nation, so they added to the pressure being exerted on Dreyer. Dreyer's excisions totaled nearly forty minutes (according to some accounts), and the distributed version ran as short as fifty minutes (of a completed 114). Worse, the cut footage was destroyed in a fire, and like most films of the silent era, most of the negatives lapsed into severe deterioration. For almost forty years, the "official version" was a bastardized re-cut set to a score (Dreyer's version was intended to be seen without any accompaniment). The reputation of the film fell somewhere in between Erich von Stroeheim's Greed and Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons: it looked like a true classic, gutted and lost forever.

And here's where the story takes a turn for the fantastic: In 1980, a near-perfect, near-complete copy of tPoJoA was discovered in the closet of a condemned Italian mental institution. Art and life have a funny way of intersecting sometimes.

I haven't seen the ravaged version of tPoJoA, but it's not hard for me to imagine that it's thematically clearer than the newly restored official version. Watching the entirety of the text, one theme, one central, shining star of a theme, shines through: that if you have faith in God, He will provide.

The story of tPoJoA is monomaniacal: over the entire course of the film, the energies of the story are directed to drive home the conflict between the Church's steadfast belief that Joan's presence undermines the Church and Joan's steadfast conviction that she is doing the work of God. The judges try every trick they can think of to convince Joan to admit that her work is not God's work - threatening her with torture, death, and even implied rape, attempting to outwit her, bribing her with communion, confession, and absolution - but Joan's convictions remain adamantine. That is, until she memorably recants her charge, and subsequently recants her recantation and is burned at the stake. This, to be blunt, is the totality of the character arc that drives the film: the conflict between Joan and her own faith. Superficially, this sounds like the recipe for a boring, pedantic film, but consider this: this conflict literally becomes the entire film.

The most obvious manifestation of this foregrounding can be found in the direction. The film is famously shot almost entirely within close-ups; the audience is forced to interact face-to-face with the uncomfortably realistic Joan and the judges. This is obviously exceedingly disquieting; Joan's introduction to the film is simply to literally bring her in and sit her down, and the judges are presented rapid-fire and rarely named. Dreyer's gamble, then, is in unceremoniously thrusting the audience into this world. But without it, the premise of the film fails to work; the surest way to introduce the audience to Joan's mindset is to put them in her place. By the time Joan begins answering questions, all of which eventually lead back to her justifying her role as God's messenger, the audience is already sympathetic to her condition, and is much more inclined to listen to her reasoning than the Howitzeresque questions fired by the judges.

Of course, Dreyer, being the genius that he was, was aware of another reality of film: that emotions are shown through subtle human reactions, not grand, sweeping gestures. The close-up, therefore, was the only way to dramatize a conflict of faith. And it is in the close-up that Falconetti shines. The part of Joan called for a number of seemingly paradoxical elements - femininity and androgeny (a characteristic frequently overlooked by prior and subsequent retellings), hunger and satiety, and most importantly, mortal fear and all-encompassing resolve. The inquest text revealed a Joan whose answers were simple, to-the-point, and utterly resolute in their authority. But Dreyer called for Joan to be less than the sum of her answers - or possibly more. Falconetti was essentially required to be a convincing person who is convinced that they speak for God.

And she nails it. Thanks to the close-ups, Falconetti's every minute maneuver is recorded for posterity - her sudden, rabbit-like spasmodic head movements, her timid shivering, her rigid posture. Her mannerisms are beyond reproach; terror has never been more convincingly portrayed. But more importantly, Falconetti's eyes belie the real story. Watching her eyes flash from total fear to absolute conviction whenever the judges ask her questions about her mission from God tells more of the story than the intertitles ever could. When the brutish guards mockingly place a hand-woven crown on her head, her eyes trigger thoughts of Lot. And when she's being burned alive, all her eyes convey is a rueful release, a self-assured sigh of relief at the fact that God is calling her home. Without a strong performance - a medium-defining performance - the film simply would not work; it would seem hammy and melodramatic. Needless to say, Falconetti's performance exceeds the boundaries thought possible by the terms of "performance".

And to hold up his end of the bargain, Dreyer enhances Falconetti's transcendent performance by literally isolating her. Throughout the film, Joan is rarely portrayed centered in the frame; frequently her face runs diagonal to the frame, or the camera is held at a Dutch angle, or her eyeline creates an abnormal horizon line, or her head is framed off-center. As a result, a reminder of Joan's uniqueness is omnipresent, and over time, her image becomes more interesting than the traditionally-framed judges (who are typically either filmed from a low angle, to underscore their despotic power, or from a traditional straight-on close-up), and the audience identifies with Joan all the more.

Conversely, Dreyer goes to great lengths to heighten the sense of dread implicit in the judges and the setting. Most commonly, this is done by wild camera moves that wouldn't look out-of-place in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. The introduction of the judges, for instance, is a tracked shot down the line of the seated magistrates. Additionally, the judges occupy far less screen time than Joan does; the overwhelming majority of their screen time is either in asking staccato questions or conversing in sinister whispers, hands hiding their mouths. The intent is obvious: Dreyer wants the audience to feel overpowered by this panel of mysterious, corrupt perverters of God's word. With the exception of the one priest who jumps to the defense of Joan, not a single one of these judges is presented in any sort of favorable light. They are ugly, craggy old men, and they hold the fate of Joan - and by extension, the implicitly-familiar audience - in the fate of their hands.

Dreyer also refuses to give the audience a clear bearing on their surroundings. There is only one establishing shot in the entire film - a 360-degree pan around the torture chamber - and even it occurs after significant inquisition has already transpired within the room. Moreover, even the small glimpses of the rooms found as backgrounds of the film are blank, unfeeling walls. Again, like so much else in tPoJoA, removing this element was a risky move, but ultimately the right one: it forces the audience to pay rapt attention to Joan's conflict.

It's remarkable to note the firmness of Dreyer's grasp on the concept of what film was. The technology of Dreyer's day was essentially rudimentary (cameras of the time didn't even have the zoom function), yet he approaches every single shot with the mindset that his vision was impossible to translate to any other medium, and that he had to do it correctly with what he had. Take the sound design, for instance - a rare occurrence in a silent film. Dreyer's original intent was to have no music play, which would make the experience all the more intense, isolated, and resonant (as the arc of the characters would be unaffected by the arc of the musical accompaniment). He also knew that despite the film's French origins, it would be distributed worldwide, and that keeping the film silent would make it more universal. Even the intertitles, which again contain exact transcriptions of the questions and Joan's responses, are edited to appear as concise as possible.

Dreyer also had an uncanny knack for developing the world of the film. As previously described, it is bleak, but it is also very, very untheatrical, a sharp break from the norm of the day. It is impossible to imagine tPoJoA being played out on a proscenium stage; though the performance would be stellar in any setting, the actual world of the film is held together by the elements of filmmaking, especially in the direction and editing. Compare the world created in tPoJoA to that of Murnau's Sunrise, to pick a random example, and the difference in process and effect is immediate: Dreyer's film aims to engender reactions that are confined to the world of film, whereas Murnau's masterpiece would look right at home on a stage (admittedly, a stage with exceedingly high production values, yet a stage nonetheless). And as a result, the world of the film assumes a palpable role in Joan's story - the few rooms and the stake become the world which she sacrifices herself to preserve. A combination of its bleakness and her frantic zeal only serves to heighten...everything.

So, considering how sterile and unwelcoming the world of the film is, it's fair to expect something sensational at the climax of the movie, and Dreyer doesn't disappoint. Logically speaking, Joan's immolation - shown in graphic, gory detail, to the extent where I was wondering how they did it without setting Falconetti on fire - is the only ending possible - it is both defiant of the laws of the corrupt Church and revelatory of the depth of her trust in God. Joan voluntarily walking to the stake - even grabbing the loose cords which bind her to the post to make the executioner's job easier - is as poignant as anything I've ever seen, on film or off. The payoff, of course, is the aforementioned fabricated riot of the peasantry against the Church, a literal trade - Joan's life for the renewed faith of the masses. It is both deeply tragic and deeply satisfying and tragic all at once - tragic in that she could have done so much more, but satisfying in the knowledge that her ardor was not in vain.

It is there that art and life intersect. To me, tPoJoA is the most succinct, accurate depiction of the Christian view of faith that I've ever seen. It's more pure than anything I ever picked out of the Bible, because it's not presented as a story - it's presented as a REAL THING that REALLY HAPPENED, and just happened to have all of the requisite earmarks of the theme of the Lord providing. That simple interpretation, combined with the overwhelming odds this film had to surpass just to get seen - the survival of the inquest text, the pressure from the Church and France, coaxing the performance of a lifetime out of Falconetti in her only performance in a film, and the seeming permanent loss of the footage - only serves to justify the message of the film. I am not a religious man by any stretch of the definition, but if anything has any meaning outside of what humans can know, it's all summed up in this film, and in the way that something...otherworldly...made sure that we were able to see it.

I knew that reviewing this film was essentially an exercise in frustration, because I can heap all the platitudes in the world on it, and still not scratch the surface as to what makes this film so great. The only modest attempt I feel confident in making is in saying that more than any other film I've ever seen, The Passion of Joan of Arc transcends its medium, cutting to the quick in such a breathtaking manner that it makes the truths in almost every other movie I've ever seen seem ephemeral. If that isn't art - and by extension, if that doesn't make this an "art film" - then I might as well pack up and leave. But as long as my word counts for anything, I'll stand by The Passion of Joan of Arc as being the greatest film I've ever seen.


Gift Set DVD

Gift Set DVD


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