It is not a commonplace thing in modern American society to face death squarely in the eye for your faith in the Almighty. Seems religious trials are almost unheard of these days. And, no, that science teacher who belittled you for thinking the earth is only being 6,000 years old doesn’t count as persecution. Martyrdom, to most Americans, is something that happened a long time ago or, if it is still happening, is very far away. It is something we, happily, do not really have to see or experience…which is why I think it terribly important to acquaint oneself with it. Some significant films that deal with this subject include James Collier’s The Hiding Place (1975), Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). It is Dreyer’s film I have selected to champion today (although watch the other movies too as they are all very good).
The Passion of Joan of Arc was directed by Carl Dreyer (Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet) in the late 1920s (and, yes, is silent). Sergei Eisenstein’s influence on Dreyer is apparent. The same ground-breaking art of montage editing that Eisenstein used to amazingly cinematic effect in The Battleship Potemkin (1925) (and in Abel Ganz’s Napoleon, 1927) is used once more and with great skill and emotional power by Dreyer to heighten the urgency, peril, and frenetic horror of the trial of Joan of Arc. The phenomenal editing coupled with the frequent use of overpowering close-ups and the stellar acting (most notably by the lead heroine played by Maria Falconetti) make for a stirringly dramatic tour-de-force.
And to think it was lost for several decades before it was found in the early 1980s in a Norwegian mental institution.
The Passion of Joan of Arc does not follow the life or brave actions of the female French martyr who heard voices that told her to lead an army against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. The movie presumes we already know Joan and so does not go into the details of her life story or the surrounding circumstances of her arrest, but instead documents her trial by the British for heresy in 1431 in Rouen. By focusing on only the final leg of Joan’s incredible life, Dreyer is able to fully explore one of the most famous trials in human history and immerse the audience in the frustrating hysteria and hypocrisy of the time.
Renee Maria Falconetti (predominately a stage actress) plays the ill-fated Joan of Arc, in what is considered by many to be one of the best screen performances in film history. She is on trial for heresy because she claims that she was commanded by God to dress as a man and go to war for her country. Her persecutors cannot accept this as this would mean that God was against the English (and that God, furthermore, condones cross-dressing).
The trial consists of a series of ornery old clerics bandying words in desperate attempts to trap Joan into admitting or denying her knowledge of being under God’s grace; the knowledge of one’s salvation was considered quite heretical at that time. Instead of giving them what they want and signing the confession that will lead to her execution—but at least, in their eyes, she will be pardoned by God for her offense—Joan instead shows her resilience, intelligence, and steadfast faith that God will protect her. They threaten her and torture her and taunt her with communion, granting it to her only if she confesses. Joan has principles and beliefs and so lying about hearing God to avoid torture would be the greater evil than her being tortured and killed as a heretic. In Joan’s mind she cannot be wrong and in the mind of men who are interrogating her she cannot be right. When two opposing forces are so fervently convinced of their own divine knowledge, where then shall reason seek council?
The final act is no less compelling or stirring than the rest of the film. Joan’s death by being burned at the stake is shocking and unforgettable (and there is a bit more to it than just an execution). Average moviegoers might get to the end of this movie and ask themselves, “Well, what was the point of that?” but I encourage you to allow the film to wash over you and consider the undaunted faith of one person. This film is anything but hollow. As a depiction of injustice, hypocrisy, the dangers of theocracy, and the products of unshakable faith, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a must-see. It’s a grand visual spectacle with marvelous, realistic performances, and expert cinematography and editing (and if you watch the Criterion DVD you’ll be treated to the fantastic new score composed by Richard Einhorn—originally the film was meant to be musically silent, but the wonderful scoring does add a bonus layer of emotion).
In America we have it pretty easy as far as martyrdom goes. Religion is allowed to be a punchline. Many times a person is viewed as simple, naive, hypocritical, or just plain dumb for submitting oneself to a higher unseen authority. Probably because, in many cases, many practitioners of faith are just that: ignorant, bigoted hypocrites. They are allowed to be because they are not challenged. When faced with certain death, what does your faith look like? How strong is it? To what are you clinging and why? I think that’s an important question.
Perhaps what stirred me most about Dreyer’s film is not just its visceral beauty and technical prowess, but its immense fervency and maturity in its depiction of theological struggle. He manages to humanize the whole court, not just Joan. Everyone is wrestling with God in this narrative. There is much to glean from in The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is a strongly recommended and thoroughly arresting feast for the soul.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Sept. 15, 2009