By Jason McBride (Seattle, WA, USA)
There have been movies about Joan of Arc almost as long there have been movies, but none have had the staying power of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Not a sweeping biopic, the 1928 silent film focuses on the trial and punishment of the future saint. Dreyer uses close-ups and odd camera angles to evoke the nightmarish experience of a tyrannical inquisition. Joan of Arc was a fifteenth century farm girl who believed she was chosen by God to protect France from English invaders. Although Joan led an army to victory, her religious visions were considered heretical, and she was put to death by public burning.
The film opens with what could be, aside from the medieval garb, a present day courtroom. The camera tracks, showing us guards gossiping, spectators seeking seats, and jurists collecting their papers; it’s so everyday it looks like the actors waiting around before the shoot. But from the moment Joan (poignantly portrayed by Maria Falconetti) enters, her nightmare begins. The Bible she swears on is wrapped in chains, a taste of the authoritarian nature of the religion-in-charge, contrasted with the devout, guileless hand that takes the oath. Joan’s interrogators mockingly question her about her visions, and Joan, who always seems to be looking toward Heaven with a beatific gaze, answers with plainspoken humility.
Dreyer shoots almost all conversation in close-up, many times with Joan’s accusers looking directly at the camera. It seems as though Dreyer sought out the most sinister and leering faces, then shoots them to paranoia-inducing effect. At first the shots are level and contained, but as the cross-examiners get more condescending and aggressive, the angles become oblique. Eye-lines no longer match. We get the scrutinizing faces of random spectators and jurists cut off from any context of place. We don’t know where they’re sitting or, sometimes, what direction they’re facing. The tilted gazes signal corruption (they will even try to trick Joan with a phony letter from her beloved king), whereas earnest Joan maintains a steady position within the frame.
Feminist or no, Dreyer paints a picture of a group of powerful men bullying a single woman. They berate her for wearing men’s clothing; one accuser asks her to describe the genitals of one of the saints in her visions. Stripped of its religious trappings, it’s reminiscent of a gang of fraternity brothers harassing a lesbian or a man begging a woman to recount a sexual fantasy for his perverse pleasure. All of this indicates a hammering at institutional tyranny and celebrating the courage of those who stick to their convictions in the face of torture and death.
There is at least one scored version of The Passion, but the film is generally shown completely silent, without even music. Although this might make contemporary viewers fidgety, the film’s sheer visual power does all the necessary lifting. Whether intended by Dreyer or not, the lack of sound enhances its disorienting power, with the mute, discontinuous images resembling the flashes of nightmare we recall from a previous night’s slumber. Even more harrowing is the realization that watching this assault (a fair description, given Joan’s ultimate fate) resembles the experience of an actual assault. Some victims describe a detachment, an out-of-body feeling during an attack. Although nowhere near the same in intensity or consequence, watching the brutalization of a character onscreen corresponds in terms of that detachment and identification. In this way, Dreyer, Falconetti and crew activate the viewer’s capacity for empathy, using our best human quality to remind us to be vigilant against our worst human qualities.