Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Written by: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Joseph Delteil
Starring: Renée Jeanne Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz
(82 minutes, B&W)
To watch Renée Falconetti's performance as Joan of Arc is to witness film history being made. Falconetti was, after this movie, cemented in history. Her face, sorrowful yet full of resolve, became an icon. People across the globe came to know her as "Maria" Falconetti. Her performance is remembered as one of the most sublime ever recorded. Yet this was her second and last film role. She returned to producing stage comedies after this film's release, fled from the Nazis to Argentina during WWII, and stayed there until her death in 1946. It's interesting that someone who had such little interest in film or fame had such a fundamental impact on it.
Falconetti conveys with one subtle glance emotion that moves the soul. In the age of silent film, actors and actresses shared a vast amount of responsibility in connecting the audience to the plight of their characters just with looks. Title cards were alternated; not every line of dialogue had subtitles, and not every exchange could be explicitly understood. The performers had to interpret the deeper meaning of their characters and translate it to those watching. It's no light task. Falconetti performance here immortalized her for history. Her Joan of Arc is a pitiful saint on trial for simply obeying the Hod she adores. Her vulnerability is haunting. Falconetti, as was proved later in her life, never needed to make any film but this. She's immortal.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the great epics of the silent picture era. It isn't long. The accelerated fps rate puts it at about 82 minutes; at a slower rate, it still clocks in at under two hours. It features no chariot races or large-scale battle scenes, but is one of the most memorable, well-respected films of all time. Why is that? Because of the innovation and inspiration with which its director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, portrays Joan's plight. It is an epic of the heart, helmed by a true disciple of its incredible story. Its sincerity and profound wells of emotion endear it to generation after generation of viewers. It's easy to find; a quick YouTube search will yield the entire film.
The film depicts the final hours of the woman whose story has become legendary: Joan of Arc, who, dressed as a man, led the French to victory over the English but was handed over to the enemy by spies in her own army. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, we see her in English-occupied France on trial for heresy. She maintains that God called her to liberate her people, and angels guided her on her quest. The church judges she faced will not believe her.
Dreyer was inspired to make a historical drama and decided to revolve his story around Joan of Arc once she was canonized as a saint in 1920. After discarding a proposed script, he headed the research and writing process himself, poring over transcripts of Joan's trial for more than a year. Joan's historic twenty-nine trials were condensed into one vast inquisition by Dreyer for the film. He also purchased the rights to Joseph Delteil's book about Joan, but didn't end up using much material from it (though Delteil was credited in the final film).
When Joan is brought before her English judges, she is above all, dismayed. The innocence that Falconetti immediately establishes in Joan's character drives the remainder of the film's proceedings. This poor young woman (Joan was 19, Falconetti was 35) cannot comprehend why these men would doubt the will of God. She enters her trial confused but resolved to convey God's true message, and what we witness for the remainder of the film is the breaking of Joan's faith in man. The judges condescend to her, ridicule her, imply impure habits behind her disguise as a man, and threaten her. At first their questions seem to glance off of her. Joan simply cannot comprehend how these men could question the will of God. Their tactics soon turn to manipulation. One priest forges a letter from the King of France, taking advantage of Joan's illiteracy to trick her into the "correct" responses. For a while in the movie, Joan puts her faith in him as a messenger from her king. The expression on her face when his deception is discovered is heartrending. These are supposedly men of God. They eventually show her to the torture chamber, where the knives, maces, and rack are shamelessly used as intimidations. When Joan faints, they must bleed her. As the blood squirts and runs from her arm, you feel dirty for watching, as if you, through observing, have played a part in the exploitation of this pure woman.
All of these scenes are shot creatively and uncomfortably by Dreyer. The set he built for the film was magnificent and life-size. Every location in the film was connected in the incredibly set; there were no stages or cut-aways. Rooms are full rooms, and hallways connect them. The castle in which she is interrogated is sterile and uniform. There are only slight deviations in tone and color. The entire set was painted pink to achieve the light-grey color it has in the final black-and-white film, and the effect is suitably alienating: Joan's place of torture and death is impersonal and frigid, like a hospital where one fears going under the knife. Corners are jagged and unpredictable. Buildings aren't exactly square or rectangular, they are tilted and sharp. The modifications aren't over-done. They're never distracting, but instead highlight the action transpiring onscreen and subtly draw the audience closer to Joan's nightmarish, unnatural world.
The movie is shot almost entirely in close-up. I don't recall a single establishing shot, or any other that wasn't absolutely integral in conveying plot or action. The interrogation of Joan goes overwhelmingly from one stage to the next, each one more vile and ominous than the last. Dreyer refused his actors make-up, in order to better convey the story through their slight facial gestures and body language. The judges were shot in high-contrast lighting, creating a harsh effect in close-ups. Falconetti was shot in softer lighting that gives her skin what could be described as a soft glow. The entire movie was shot in sequence, and Dreyer was notorious for numerous takes. Again and again he would force Falconetti through her emotional performance, waiting for just the right nuance to move on. What's finally put forth on film is the resulting perfection.
Earlier I stated that what's witnessed in the film by the audience is the loss of Joan's faith in man. Though her life is broken and taken from her by the film's end, her soul remains intact, as does her faith in God. That could never be lost. She refuses to discount her visions from God as lies, so the judges change their tune a bit: perhaps you weren't lying, they say. Perhaps your calling was the work of Satan, used to tempt you and lead you astray against God's plan. You're not to blame, they tell her. All you must do is renounce the devil.
Ultimately they inform Joan that she will be executed if she doesn't recant. Guards shorn her hair and mock her, placing a small woven crown on her head and calling her, amidst their laughter, "the daughter of God." They lead her to the public square and threaten her with death. They promise to spare her life if only she'll cast off Satan. Slowly her hand, pen in hand, crosses the paper. She signs the statement of her guilt. The priests heave a sigh of relief. Their job is done. As we all know, Joan recants. She begs forgiveness from God for her moment of weakness. This is when Falconetti is at her most powerful. Joan now knows that she will die. It's a choice she's made and come to accept.
Two priests enter her cell. She slowly tilts her head up toward them, her eyes exhausted and her tear-stained face weary.
"We've come to prepare you for death."
Joan asks for the specifics of her execution. Her eyes gaze through the men, not at them. A single tear is frozen on her cheek. Before they depart to bring the last sacrament, one priest gently leans down toward Joan. He asks her quietly: "How can you still believe that you are sent by God?"
Joan's eyes drift to the floor, carrying in them the excruciating pain of her soul. Her response is slow but firm: "His ways are not our ways." The tear falls.
One of the film's best, most subtle moments comes while Joan is burning at the stake. Her eyes are raised up to God through the entire ordeal, as the crowd around the square moans and sobs. One judge watches her silently from inside the castle. It's the man who forged the letter from the king. He stands still. One tear forms in his eye before he turns away.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the finest examples of how contemporary and applicable classic film can be. It doesn't feel almost ninety years old. It feels revolutionary, and it breaks the hearts of every new generation who views it. As much as the greatest painting, Dreyer's masterpiece lives on vibrantly. The film is old. Its story and emotion are timeless.
NOTE: The Criterion DVD of The Passion of Joan of Arc is accompanied by Richard Einhorn's 1995 score Voices of Light, written specifically to accompany the film. It's a gorgeous piece of music; try to find a version of Dreyer's film that includes it.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is obviously unrated by the MPAA, as it pre-dates the MPAA. It's a pretty heavy movie thematically, but other than a few shots of the priests bleeding Joan to revive her after passing out and some brief shots of her burning at the stake (her face surrounded by smoke), there's nothing objectionable.