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Review: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

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passion of st joan of arc - The Catholic weekly

In the early golden era of movies, before talkies and Technicolor, one silent film speaks volumes. 

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) remains a haunting recollection of the French saint’s trial and death that needs no words to deliver an emotionally intense drama featuring one of the greatest ever lead performances. 

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My attempt to depict this masterpiece in words, nearly a century since its release and on the heels of St Joan’s 30 May feast day, perhaps ironically proves the idea that less is more, but this is exactly what Dreyer alone elucidates so brilliantly. 

Dreyer allegedly threw out his French producer’s script and went straight to Joan’s trial records, consolidating her 29 cross-examinations into one hearing together with torture, goading and deception for the two-hour long movie. 

From the outset Joan, played by Renée Jeanne Falconetti, is framed as the victim of something sinister. She appears quietly in the courtroom between two looming spears below cunning monks who seek to trick her into confessing her crusade against the English was not from God. 

If not for some key intertitles (the text that appears in silent films to portray context or dialogue) viewers might not even know the film is set in a French courtroom. Dreyer strips away all possible distractions in the frame and solely shoots Joan and her oppressors in closeups and medium shots. 

Joan, always pictured from a high angle, appears small and weak to the audience while the clerics are shot from below. Their features—warts, blisters and balding heads—along with their wide eyes and gaping mouths take on an exaggerated, comical depiction of corrupt medieval ecclesiastics.  

Dreyer’s camera depicts these tormentors to appear elongated (much in line with the German Expressionism and French avant-garde movements at the time) in such a way that they engulf Joan. They seem to pile up, rising higher above Joan scene after scene like a growing monster. 

Though in the script and cast list, no other character’s name appears in the film other than Joan’s. Dreyer is telling us their names do not matter, they are one force against Joan. 

Passion of st joan of arc - the catholic weekly

The editing too is frustratingly (but purposefully) jarring and plays into these hostile emotions. Here Dreyer throws the 180-degree camera rule out the window, making it virtually impossible to keep up with who exactly Joan is communicating with between cuts.  

The heart of the film therein lies with Falconetti’s famed performance as Joan, a response to all this chaos. She is mostly composed though terrified, and at times outspoken. 

“Do you already share in the grace of the Lord?” they ask Joan at one point in hopes of catching her blaspheme. She looks away scared and dejected, until the words come to her, and she answers defiantly: “If I am, I wish God would keep me in it … if I am not, then God will grant me his grace.” 

In Falconetti’s eyes Dreyer delivers viewers a glimpse into the saint’s tormented yet unwavering soul. They are wide open, glossy and piercing the entire film. 

As she accepts that her fate will be to burn at the stake, Joan’s tears hang from the bottom of her eyelids suspended for what seems like eternity. You cannot look away. 

As the film progresses Joan’s witness grows more powerful and upon her execution, one member in the crowd becomes uncontrollable, yelling, “You have burned a saint,” igniting chaos and death as the flames burn.  

The film’s comparison of Joan to Christ are obvious; she is a meek lamb thrown to the wolves because of her unshakable belief, who goes willingly to the Father in order to fulfill her mission.  

But we are also able to relate to Joan on a human level.  

In her we find a woman who suffered hardship, suffering and temptation. From her we take the hope that we too can overcome all this in our own lives to be obedient to the Father’s will.  

This would be Falconetti’s first and final film role, which she plays to perfection. 

As Joan’s tale is immortalised in church history, so is Falconetti’s immortalised in film, all without a word uttered. 

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