Passion of Joan of Arc (Review/Discussion)

Passion of Joan of Arc (6 out of 10)
dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

I’m going to try and break up this (and future reviews) into two sections. In the first section, I will try to help readers decide if they would like to see this film or not. In the second section, I’m going to talk about my own personal reaction and comments to the film.

Should You See the Film?

Passion of Joan of Arc is a black-and-white silent film. If you’re into black-and-white photography, especially of the human face, then this might be a film for you. The little action there is in the film takes place on the human face, particularly the face of Maria Falconetti, the actor who plays Joan. The film is virtually a series of close-ups that chronicle the trial of Joan of Arc. First the camera focuses in on the face of a priest questioning Joan. Then it focuses on Joanís face. Back and forth the camera moves, but there is very little action (except for the facial expression) and so the film is very slow. The film is like looking at a Medieval portrait of Jesus or Mary that can react. The shots of Falconettiís face are a like a combination of Jesus and Mary–with the head titled to the side, eyes turned upward and a face glowing with passion and pathos.

Her face also reminds me of that famous National Geographic photograph of a Middle-Eastern girl intensely staring into the camera with wide, hypnotic eyes. Falconetti is very effective at conveying both a combination of stress (because her life is in jeopardy), fanaticism and at other times a brooding sorrow. Falconetti looks as if sheís trying to push all of these emotions through her face with all her might or the emotions are bursting in an incandescent explosion. Perhaps, the lack of sound in the film enhances this impression.

The comparison to paintings or photographs is also appropriate because enjoying the film depends on having a similar frame of mind as going to an art museum. The viewer, to enjoy him or herself, has to actively view the art (i.e. focusing on the meaning of the work, and being open to a reaction from the art, etc.). The enjoyment also depends on patience and an undivided attention, giving the art work time to soak in. I think it would be difficult to appreciate the film without this frame of mind.

This is also true because while the film has written dialogue that appear on the screen a lot of the dialogue is not written. You see the actors mouthing lines (sometimes a lot) and there is no translation. Given that the movie is basically a trialóquestions-and-answers between Joan and the religious establishmentónot allowing the audience to know what is being said could make engaging the audience a lot more difficult.

Besides the powerful images of Falconettiís face, you might be interested in the religious drama of the film. It is very much in the same vein as Jesusí trial or the trial of Socrates (except the depiction is mainly a visual experience).

(Iím going to talk about the plot because I donít think knowing the plot will ruin the film, but if you know nothing about Joan of Arc, and you do not want to know the plot, donít read any further.)

I knew very little of Joan of Arc before the film, but apparently she had a religious experience with in which God told her that she would help drive the English from France. God also tells her she must dress like a man until the English leave France. The religious establishment wants her to renounce these things, using the various means, including threats of torture and death. This ordeal and the way Joan handles it is what the film chronicles.

Personal Reactions and Comments:

So what did I think of the film? I did find Falconettiís face compelling, but I donít know if I was just not in the mood to see this film, or that the film just didnít have enough to hold my interest, (I was too restless and there were distractions around me.) but I didnít particular enjoy watching the film, and my score reflects that more than the my opinion about the quality of the film. I think the lack of dialogue appearing on the screen made it more difficult for me to enjoy. As I said, you have to watch the film as you if you were looking at paintingópainting that has human figures that move (without sound).

Is it a good film? Well, Iím not sure. Supposedly, the director, Carl Dreyer, employed innovative close-ups in the film. I did notice that the actors did not look like. The shots of Falconetti are striking.
What I liked about the film, besides the images of Falconettiís face, was Joanís passion and stubborn refusal to renounce her experience. I am drawn to characters who stick to their convictions despite the costs to oneís well-being. I am reminded of Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Thomas Moore in A Man For All Seasons. The difference is that Joan sticking to her claim on a mystical/religious experience, while Smith and Moore hold their ground based on ethics. In a way, she requires more passion and faith because the risk level is not only great, but there is a level of uncertainty that doesnít exist in the ethical stage. When Smith and Moore hold their position, theyóand everyone elseóknows they are in the right. For someone like Joan, on the other hand, her experiences are open to doubt even by her. If youíve ever felt like Godís telling you to do something, I think itís safe to assume that you have questioned whether this is Godís will or not. To stake your life on something that you sometimes doubt requires a significant level of passion. Joan also reminds me a little of the character Bess in Lars von Trierís Breaking the Waves.

Based on Joanís claims, sheís either a genuine messenger from God, crazy or demon possessed. Falconettiís intense expressions make her look fanatical either way. Itís plausible that people would come to different conclusions.

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