"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 5, 2011

"The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928) by Carl Dreyer (Film review)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer is a film about faces. Dreyer uses a special cinematic language that consists of incessant, sometimes brutal close-ups (coupled with daring camera angles). It is as if the director wanted to study the grammar of faces. With great psychological authenticity, the characters are revealed in all their nakedness.

The actress Renee Maria Falconetti who plays the role of Joan (Jeanne d'Arc) is simply mesmerizing. Her beatific face - without any make-up for the film - is usually lifted upwards (towards an imaginary Heaven?). She strongly brings out Joan's innate beauty and strength, and faces her clerical captors with dignity and humility.

The judges and wardens, in contrast, are false, unthinking, grotesque, bored, decadent, evil, in short, the type of faces you can meet daily on the street. They are us. In the film, they are also the face of the organized church. It is a wonder that Joan, while being tortured by these men, can still believe that goodness exists in the world.

This impressive film is not a historical account of Joan's life, showing her military exploits. It is also not a nationalistic vehicle, the way the image of Joan of Arc (1412-1431) is used in France in times of distress, such as WWI. And, happily, it is also not a torture movie like The Passion of Christ. Dreyer only shows us Joan's trial and subsequent execution. The trial is held by churchmen in a room in the castle where Joan is prisoner. We, too, are confined in these spaces for almost the whole film's length - anything obviously cinematic from Joan's life has been left out.

The film is based on an authentic document: the original deposition of Joan's trial in 1431 (here condensed from four months to one day). Tried for heresy and blasphemy, she faces her main enemy, Bishop Cauchon, who places various wily, semantic traps in her way. She evades them all. It is only under heavy pressure - the threat of torture - that she finally signs a confession, only to retract it almost immediately because she feels she would betray herself. She then gets the maximum punishment and is burned at the stake.

This is a most moving film, perhaps thanks to its conscious limitations. It is also the coming together of an actress who gives a breathtaking performance and a director at his innovative best.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is available in the Criterion Collection. 
(Revised August 2014)