The Passion of Joan of Arc: an experimental film let down by its narrow focus, story-line and characterisation

Carl Theodor Dreyer, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)

In itself, this silent film is remarkable for its lead actor Maria Falconetti’s acting from the neck up, portraying the anguish and suffering of the famous French heroine after she was captured by Burgundian forces who delivered her to the English for imprisonment and torture. Based on actual transcripts of Joan’s trial, the film covers the period from her incarceration to her death by burning at the stake. French clergymen loyal to the English cause try to force her to sign a confession admitting to being under Satanic influence and when that attempt fails, resort to blackmail and deception to compel her to sign. Threatened with burning, Joan allows a priest to guide her hand in signing the confession but later recants when given a life sentence. Having failed to break her resistance and spirit, the churchmen put Joan to death, and her public execution rouses the townsfolk into revolt against the religious and military authorities.

The film is noteworthy for its insistence on the use of facial close-ups of the lead character to convey her devotion to her king, her country and God, and to emphasise her spiritual purity and strength. Joan’s persecutors are filmed under harsh light that emphasises their craggy features (or soft facial padding as the case may be) and suggests that they are spiritually impoverished or corrupt. The clergy’s obsession with Joan wearing men’s clothes and the way in which they use the ritual of holy communion to trick Joan into signing the confession show the men are more interested in following empty forms of outward piety than pursuing spiritual enlightenment.

Unfortunately the film gives very little background (apart from title cards) to Joan’s imprisonment and says very little about the visions that inspired a simple peasant girl, unable to read and write, to take up arms and lead armies into battle against the English. Viewers can easily get the wrong idea about Joan’s character from watching Falconetti’s performance – there is little in her portrayal that suggests a forthright and determined character. Falconetti’s Joan makes an impression as a highly religious woman whose outward simplicity hides a fairly cunning mind. Occasionally she is given over to brief ecstatic episodes that might suggest she is hallucinating.

The film is not long but its narrow focus and minimal style can make it seem unbearably long for some viewers. Perhaps it might have worked better if several of the churchmen had been more devious and pretended to Joan that they desired to help her escape punishment – on conditions that they will make known at much, much later times. The film could have been as much an inquisition of Joan inside and outside of court, and emphasised a narrative of prison and trial as tests of Joan’s character and intelligence, as it is a portrayal of the “justice” meted out to her. We would see the qualities that made Joan an outstanding leader and a non-conformist whose very existence threatens the power hierarchy and values exemplified by the Roman Catholic Church. As an experimental film of a sort, it works well but the experimentation butts heads with a narrowly defined story-line and a heroine who turns out to be more conventional in character and portrayal than expected.

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