The Passion of Joan of Arc, is there any film in history that is as mythical as this? Directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer, this film about the last days of Saint Joan of Arc was critically acclaimed but at the time (1928) it was very controversial. It failed financially and so many copies were destroyed that at one time it was considered lost; then with great luck, a complete negative print was found in a mental asylum, of all places. More than just an easy to find purchase museum piece The Passion of Joan of Arc is a uniquely powerful art film that has emotional resonance to this day. Part of why it was so controversial was that it was a film about a Christian figure that did not immediately idolize the saint but that is what made the film so great. Combining unique visuals and beautiful performances, The Passion of Joan of Arc provides one of the most complex and honest portrayals of a martyr on film.
The first thing that the film states is how Dreyer used the recorded text of the trial of St. Joan as the main source of his script. There are lines in the film that are literally a part of history. Not only does it is create a sense of historical accuracy but it allows for the archaic political implications of the time to be nakedly displayed. One might not expect that wearing men’s clothes was such major factor St. Joan’s trial. Another aspect of the film is the set design, which was this huge, multiple room, and outdoor mini-castle. It is hard to notice but the details of this are so precise that looks like an ancient cathedral. This attention to detail shows that Dreyer put much effort into research and also wanted to portray the event sincerely. Regardless of his beliefs Dreyer is an honest and empathic storyteller who would not tarnish a story with cheap flourishes. He wanted to show why the story of St. Joan resonated so much with the French and Catholic Church and by simply portraying the trial as how it happened, that resonance shows itself brightly and truthfully.
Of course this film would not work if Joan of Arc herself were played simply for melodrama. Actress Renée Falconetti manages to delve into the psyche in a way that was far ahead of its time. Her performance in this film is one of that is so raw, subtle and intimate that it is disquieting. Roger Ebert wrote, “in a medium without words, where the filmmakers believed that the camera captured the essence of characters through their faces, to see Falconetti… is to look into eyes that will never leave you.” Falconetti looks so broken that one cannot help but get caught in debate about how demanding Dreyer was on set; even then, her eyes can still pierce into one’s very soul. Falconetti is also ambiguous with her portrayal, when one sees her as Joan it is difficult to tell if God drives her or madness. But even as she is interrogated, St. Joan’s emotions are still sincere and unsinkable. In a film era when pantomime was the norm and Marlon Brando was still a toddler, Falconetti’s performance was a revelation. She never acted in another film again but the effort put into understanding and portraying this one role far surpasses many of the best of the past present and future.
The funny thing about The Passion of Joan of Arc is that the film is so reliant on close-ups that one can hardly notice the elaborate set at all. Dreyer wanted the audience to understand St. Joan as intimately as possible so he filmed the actors as exactly that; the actors did not where make-up, the set was painted pale colors so the camera could stay focused on their faces and nothing else. To watch this film is to watch a collection of faces that flow into a narrative and emotional arc. Every wrinkle, tear, and facial muscle is as revealing as a verse in a poem. The film is like history reinterpreted as a psychological dreamscape; it allows the audience to freely see St. Joan as a human that evolving into an idol.
It is difficult to understate the significance of The Passion of Joan of Arc as it seemingly transcended the film medium itself and is treated like a Renaissance painting. The film is so entrenched in the history of St. Joan it becomes an abstract documentary of sorts that allows for her to speak for herself. The minimalist and close nature of the cinematography somehow manages to both detached and curious about the events while understanding the tragic beauty of St. Joan. Most of all Renée Falconetti’s performance as St. Joan and Carl Theodore Dreyer’s direction shows their insistence of trying to understand the character of Joan, which is what makes it so special. This is a film about empathy, an effort to understand the human side of a martyr. In doing so it makes St. Joan’s sacrifices more tragic and greater because by the end it is like watching a close friend or loved one die. The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential watch; a beautiful film that is so much more gripping and intense than most art films made these days. Granted, it may be best to watch it with a friend in case one needs to go buy more tissues.