THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC
Lost for decades, The Passion of Joan of Arc was found in the closet of a Danish mental hospital in 1981. It seems almost fitting given the madness that engulfed our Maid of Orleans when she was captured and put on trial for heresy by her English enemies and the Church in league with them during the 100 Years War between the English and French. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a small film but one of the most gripping of the silent era: the agony of Joan's physical and spiritual torture rendered movingly.
Drawing from the original transcripts and notes of the trial, Joan (Maria Falconetti in her second and final film performance) is asked about her visions by the various Churchmen. Her answers both confound and infuriate them, as she will not renounce her divine visions nor fall into any of their traps. The learned men find themselves unable to either trick or dissuade our simple peasant girl, which only infuriates them more.
She answers her questions with a resigned grace, but the emotional agony of her torture is almost Christ-like. Only once does she appear to take any sense of anger at them, stating "You say that I am sent by the devil. That is not true. It is you who are sent by the devil to make me suffer".
The Churchmen only grow more desperate to break this stubborn girl, though at least two Churchmen believe that not only is she innocent but that they are condemning a saint. One leaves the trial, falling at her feet begging forgiveness, while another appears to be intimidated into silence by the others when he warns her against answering about whether she is in a state of grace.
Joan's agony is intensified by her fervent faith, which is momentarily shaken when presented with instruments of torture. Still, she will not recant, until she is brought to see where she will be burned at the stake. Finally, she breaks and has her hand guided to sign her name to her 'confession'.
Learning she is to remain in prison for the rest of her life, she soon recants her confession, tearfully stating that her fear of death made her fall. With nothing else, the Churchmen sentence her to death. As fires consume her, and the young priest who, like Nicodemus, believes her innocent (even holding a Cross for her to see as she burns), the crowd turns on the Churchmen, condemning them for having killed a saint. The Churchmen and their English allies in occupied France are ready for them, however, and being a slaughter as she burns.
Much has been written and said about Falconetti giving the greatest performance of all time in film with her Joan. I can say that it is a brilliant performance, as she makes Joan a young girl caught in a mix of religious ecstasy and human fear, of deep faith and deep sorrow. Falconetti's Joan is sincere and wise beyond her years, her true faith as counterpoint to the Churchmen's cynical and hypocritical abuse of it.
There is a scene where Joan is mocked with a false crown and an arrow for a 'specter' in the same way Our Lord was mocked. Her image is that of painful grace, a courageous yet sorrowful woman who endures all this for her Lord and her beloved France.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is a fitting title, for her agony before her execution is extremely reminiscent of the agony of Jesus Christ before He was committed to Calvary's torture.
Director Carl Theodor Dryer uses virtually nothing but close-ups of the actors, keeping the audience in rapt attention as we cannot turn away. Each actor is giving the appropriate look: menacing and monstrous for the Churchmen, saintly and agonized for Joan. Very often, Dryer has Joan looking up at her accusers and torturers, suggesting subliminally the powerful position they had versus hers. When she condemns her accusers, it is a rare moment when she is at eye level, as if to suggest this is when she 'rises' against the forces of evil aligned against her.
At her execution, while she is now above, it is only because we are getting the viewpoint of the people who have come to the execution, and we can see the pain and acceptance of her impending martyrdom.
What perhaps Dryer has not received enough credit for is in how well he holds the audience's interest with nearly endless close-ups. He also might not have enough credit for the intense and frightening massacre that takes place as Joan's body is consumed by the flames, in itself a very chilling moment.
We see the maces getting thrown down to the soldiers in a swinging-like manner, suggesting the impending chaos. The final chaos post-execution is, to my mind, near the equal of the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin in its editing and intensity.
Dryer even allows a strong counterpoint between the shearing of Joan's hair and the carnival-like atmosphere outside her prison walls.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is an intense film, one that explores courage under spiritual and physical agony. Using intimate images of the participants, and Falconetti's brilliant and astonishing performance of our heroine, it grips you right after we see the original manuscript of Joan's trial up to the final horrifying moments of her body consumed with fire, but her soul spared the flames of damnation, to be at the side of her Lord and Savior.