The Passion of Joan of Arc is Carl Dreyer’s silent film made in 1928, often considered his masterpiece. Many believe it to be one of the greatest films of all time and it is the first in my Dreyer marathon. When writing these film reviews I will try to go into them knowing as little as possible about each film in order to prevent a bias. There is not much I can add to the conversation about a film that has been around for over 80 years, but I suppose my unstudied self could bring something fresh to a film that has been analyzed by people far smarter than me.
The film is silent. Completely silent. As in, there is no dialogue, sound effects, or even background music. This can at times make the movie a tough watch and there is certainly some patience required to sit through the 81 minutes of silent drama. The plot showcases everything from the accusations against Joan to her fateful execution at the stake.
Joan is surrounded by judges, soldiers, and priests all seeking to punish her for her deeds. The soldiers hope to get revenge on her because of her actions against England, while the priests see her declarations and visions of God as heretical and worth the worst punishment. Each of them wants her to take back her statements in a document declaring her repentance. They are willing to torture and even kill her in order for this to happen. The priests, although there are a few who do take some compassion on her, would rather have this woman dead than have her speak words that don’t line up with their theology. It is reminiscent of the Crusades or early inhabitation of America, with the philosophy that people should change their ways or be killed for believing another way. Joan refuses to give in to the threats of her captors and famously pays the price of that decision.
It was the behavior of the priests and not the courage of Joan however, that stood out the most to me (probably not the intention of the director). There is something so frustrating about people that are willing to kill in order to have their way or beliefs or whatever gain power and control. The fact is that both Joan and the priests were both a part of the Christian faith, albeit different expressions of it. Though they were a part of two different countries that were at war, this is not what stood in their way. No, it was doctrinal differences. A matter of theology is what lead to bring down one of the most heralded heroines in history. Now I am sure the situation was much more complex than this but at least from the film, this statement is partially true. Side note: This reminds me of the recent situation within the Christian world involving Rob Bell (for those not up to date, check it out here). Perhaps this is exactly what Dreyer is making a point of. I do not know the exact political or religious climate he grew up in, but I can imagine that these subjects caused a lot of divide in his life (as is evidenced in his other masterpiece Ordet, which we will get to later in the marathon).
Throughout each scene there are many images I’m sure are considered iconic and Dreyer’s special effects (especially towards the end) are absolutely fantastic, considering when it was made. These images are used to enhance the themes that deal with religious censorship, Pharisee-like condemnation, and political tension. Maria Falconetti is absolutely brilliant in her depiction of wide-eyed Joan of Arc. She is so intense as the quiet but passionate woman who stood by her country and her visions and beliefs in God. When she cries at various parts, it will break your heart. Sometimes she might overplay it a little (like I said, she is definitely wide-eyed), but with a silent film such as this, overplaying your part might just be what is required.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film that requires more than just one watch. When audiences first screened it, they thought it was absolutely terrible. But, over time it has come to be adored by many. I think this is one that will continue to grow on me in the future, as I read about it, rewatch it, and explore the other films of Carl Dreyer.
Up next in the Dreyer marathon: Vampyr (1932)