Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 54 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary
with a word. Morning by morning he wakens– wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not
hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame…”
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so”…
Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
Filmmakers have made much of the scenes of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, with director Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ going the farthest in depicting the terrible cruelty of the event. Other filmmakers have told similar stories set in later times. One of the greatest of these is the Danish silent era Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. By his choice of title and the way he filmed the trial the director was obviously comparing Joan’s ordeal with that of Christ’s. There have been other productions since sound was introduced to film, such as the 1948 version Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman, or in 1999 when two films about her were released, Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc staring Mila Jovovich, and Christian Duguay’s Joan of Arc, a TV film starring Leelee Sobieski as the Maid of Orleans. All three of these were shot in color with lavish costumes and historically accurate settings. However none of them comes close to matching the power of Dreyer’s black and white production, shot in a style that upset accepted film tradition.
Dreyer threw out an already written script and used in its place excerpts from the recorded proceedings of the trial. This took place over a period of 4 1/2 months, so he focused upon the exchanges between her accuser Bishop Pierre Cauchon and Joan, compressing the time into a much shorter period..
Dreyer gives no background story because he was not interested in making a biographical film—and who in France needed to be reminded of the details? The title he chose is exactly the story he wanted to film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Even a cursory reading of the Third Servant Song in Isaiah and Mark’s story of Jesus’ trial will make clear the parallels between the Maid of Orleans’ ordeal and the themes of innocent suffering in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The French bishop, who was under the control of the invading English forces, is a stand-in for the Jerusalem chief priest and his minions. Joan, who goes to her death with a straw crown about her head, is, of course, Christ.
Much has been rightly made of Dreyer’s cinematic style, the story filmed almost entirely in close-ups and medium shots. Usually a director will use long and medium shots to establish the place or setting of the characters, but except for a tracking shot showing the judges and soldiers in the courtroom at the beginning of the film, this film consists almost entirely of medium and close ups, some of the latter being extremely close-up shots. I have read that Dreyer, seeing the stage actress Maria Falconetti in a light-hearted stage play, was struck by her expressive face and eyes. In the film he uses close-ups of that face with its large, round eyes to express Joan’s purity. What a contrast between the shots of her face and those of the various priests and soldiers who are judging and guarding her.
One priest at Joan’s trial does protest the proceedings, declaring (in an intertitle), “This is disgraceful. For me she is a saint.” He bows to the ground before her feet. There are lots of shots of faces with looks of disapproval so that Joan’s would-be defender leaves. Another priest, a much older man seems to agree, but from a large number of quick shots of his colleague’s cold faces, he too falls silent. The many shots of faces, some cold and unsmiling, others sneering, and the few that do smile, doing so in a condescending way, remind one of the distorted features of the accusers, soldiers, and Pilate in Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings “Christ Before Pilate” and “Christ Carrying the Cross.” Their features are so distorted by their hatred and contempt that they seem closer to beasts than to human beings.
The Bishop tries to trap Joan by various devices, the best-known one being his asking her if she is in a state of grace. A “Yes” answer could lead to condemnation because the teaching of the Catholic Church was that no person could be sure of this. But if “No,” then her past claims can be regarded as lies, and thus she is a heretic. The Bishop thinks he has her on the horns of a dilemma, very much like the Pharisees when they asked Jesus the question about paying tribute to Caesar. But the untutored maid is as quick-witted as her Savior, deftly replying, “If I am not, may God put me there! And if I am, may God so keep me!”
Fearful of the torture implements that Bishop Cauchon shows her, Joan is filled with such dread that she denies that her voices and visions are of divine origin. It is as if she has entered into Gethsemane and, unlike Christ, given in. She is sentenced to life in prison with just bread and water for her fare. Then she recants her confession, and is condemned to death. Although there is no “Easter” for Joan, there was a touch of it when 20 years later the Church launched an investigation that reversed the decision of the judges, condemning Bishop Cauchon as a heretic who persecuted Joan for political rather than religious reasons.
The film itself went through a sort of passion and Easter. It did not do well at the box office because of its starkness. A fire destroyed the negative, and a second one that Dreyer put together from negatives of out-takes also was lost in a fire. Only very inferior copies of the film were thought to remain, until 1981 when a good version of the original cut of the film was discovered in Oslo—in a mental institution. How’s that for irony?
Note: You can watch a totally silent version is available on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3Q6FVhqLY0
Or a version with musical theme played over and over in loop fashion at:
This review with a set of discussion questions is in the March 2014 issue of Visual Parables.
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