Carl Theodor Dreyer’s late silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc / The Passion of Joan of Arc separates the weak from the strong. You either love it – as I do – or hate it.
The film has an interesting background – it was censored, it was lost, and it was rediscovered inside a closet in a lunatic asylum in Norway. The Criterion Collection’s DVD restoration is beautiful; the picture is crisp and clear, though the “unflattering” camera angles take a while to get used to. In fact, practically the whole movie features stark close-ups of ominous-looking people. The costumes consist of simple 15th-century robes, while the soundtrack comprises classical Latin and French choruses, thus setting the perfect mood for the era in which The Passion takes place.
The well-known story about the trial of Joan of Arc is told here from real transcripts of the event that has inspired countless films, plays, and legends: A French maiden becomes a lot of trouble to the British clergy whose government has occupied her country. Inflamed by the “voice of God,” she begins dressing as a man to fight the English, and is eventually put on trial for heresy.
In Dreyer’s film, Joan is played by stage actress Maria Falconetti, whose face continually displays a series of wide-eyed, pained expressions of fear and bewilderment, as tears stream down her cheeks. In truth, Falconetti makes a pretty scary Joan. Her androgynous face perfectly captures the tormented character of a young woman consumed by religious fervor.
Now, what’s so striking about Joan of Arc’s story is the importance placed on her cross-dressing. For instance, the English court torments Joan by withholding mass from her as long as she’s dressed as a man. Watching The Passion of Joan of Arc, you get the impression that her attire contributed a great deal to her persecution.
Dreyer’s use of religious iconography is remarkable, e.g., the scene where Joan is mocked and abused in prison, and is given a fake crown to wear, one not unlike Jesus’ crown of thorns. Indeed, sadism is ever-present as the court seems to delight in torturing her both mentally and physically. (Joan’s suffering in The Passion is so intense that I felt like I was being tortured right along with her.)
For Joan, the ultimate agony is being denied the Holy Sacrament. Unless she signs a confession admitting her “crimes,” she cannot receive the host. Thus, The Passion of Joan of Arc unveils the hypocrisy of a religious institution that exploits its control over the faithful by offering them salvation – while being free to replace it with damnation whenever they please.
Ultimately, Joan’s fate is to have her head shaved and be burned alive at the stake. But first she must, “eat the bread of sorrow and drink the water of anguish.” (ewwww!) Then, looking more masculine than ever, she is led to the pyre to meet her martyrdom.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is one powerful film. I see it as more of a horror movie than anything else; the garish close-ups, the torture, the anguish all amount to terror not only for Joan of Arc but for the audience as well.
© Danny Fortune
The Passion of Joan of Arc / La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer. Screenplay: Carl Theodor Dreyer and Joseph Delteil. Cast: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz, Antonin Artaud, Michel Simon, Jean d’Yd.