THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC
ART FILM OF THE WEEK
Carl Th. Dreyer’s finest achievement is a silent picture that, after being thought lost, survived the years in an Oslo mental asylum, and was restored to its original breathtaking beauty thereafter.
Joan is the ultimate martyr, conditioned by visions of God and Michael the Arch-Angel. Those who condemn her are the judges of the church sent to force her to confess or otherwise perish. Joan chooses to believe in her visions. Though she worships the same God in the same church, she is to be burnt at the stake for her devotion. Her martyrdom sets off an Eisenstein-esque riot, ending with the smoldering stake of Joan’s demise.
As related, Joan’s trial is based on a document of historical fact, presented in a montage of extreme close-ups. The old judges and the prison guards (one of whom is played by the inimitable poet/artist/madman Antonin Artaud) are thirsty for Joan’s blood and pay no mind to her divine encounters with God and his grace. Thus, she believes that her own victory can be found only in her death at the hands of the unjust; it would be a loss if she gives in, confesses, and is consigned to a less painful execution.
Joan does her best to stand for her own defense, but early on, the film establishes her inevitable defeat by the very church she sought to enrich and enliven. In attempt after attempt by the prosecution to get a confession of Joan’s interaction, not with God, but rather, an evil spirit (in their eyes, the devil) they resort to violent torture. Joan’s reluctance to admit the lie that she has conferred with the devil fuels the fire of the brooding, fiendish older men, sending them into a rage, even though present is the outward fact of Joan’s innocent, God-like soul.
Joan’s unwavering faith incites her enemies to send her to die on a stake. In her pain and suffering, Joan takes momentary comfort in the shadow of the window to her cell, which forms a cross. Maria Falconetti gives a performance that quakes the spirit, awakening in the spectator the disgusting inhumanity that organized religion is capable of in any time period.
Paul Schrader, who along with the rest of his illustrious career, wrote The Last Temptation of Christ, contends that the film is transcendent in its vision of Joan becoming Christ-like. The entire masterpiece causes heartbreak when witnessing the hurt of the world carried as a burden by Joan who’s masterfully played with preternatural realism by Maria Falconetti (in the third and last film of her short career).
Dreyer’s depiction of the subjectivity of Joan of Arc is transformed into the subjectivity of the spectator, knowing that upon her final breath, a martyr of God has been forever immortalized by the art of the motion picture at its highest point.