The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Cast: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, AndrÃ© Berley
Synopsis: A chronicle of the trial of Jeanne d’Arc on charges of heresy, and the efforts of her ecclesiastical jurists to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions.
Despite its sparse sets and stylistic technique, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is probably as close as it is possible for a 20th Century film to resemble a factual recording of an event that took place 400 years before the invention of film. In depicting the events surrounding the trial of 19-year-old Joan for heresy, Dreyer focuses on the faces of its characters with a succession of close-ups that capture, without the luxury of sound and dialogue, the emotions and conceits of the main protagonists.
Maria Falconetti, a light comedienne in her only major film role, plays Joan with a depth of emotion which belies her comic stage roots. Although she looks older than 19 — she was 36 when the film was released — the pain, fear and bewilderment etched into her features enable the audience to see beyond the obvious disparity in ages and catch a glimpse of the terrifying ordeal undergone by Joan. Subjected to a series of trials — condensed to just one for the film, which uses transcripts of the actual trials as the basis for its script — Joan is questioned and tortured by a group of religious zealots who have no interest in determining the truth or otherwise of her claims, but are simply intent on forcing her to admit to their charges of heresy in order to conform with their own preconceived ideas of religious acceptability.
The clergymen, again shot in close up, often from a low angle and wearing no make-up, resemble human gargoyles. Some of them are nearly toothless, others have warts on their faces, some thick tufts of hair protruding from nose and ears. Their deeply seamed and weathered faces, the representation of human self-deceit and ignorance, bear down on Joan with nothing but ill-intent.
The Passion of Joan of Arc isn’t an easy film to watch. Its running time is short — just 81 minutes — but in that time it challenges its audience to look beyond its images and contemplate the conflicting versions of faith on display — the pious but malleable faith of Joan, and the intractable and mistrusting version followed by the clergymen.
(Reviewed 6th October 2012)