THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC
The film which has influenced my practice beyond all others is Carl Theodore Dreyer’s, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which is, as Parkinson termed it, ‘one of the masterpieces of the silent era’ (2006: 933) and as Kael noted, ‘One of the greatest of all movies’ (2004: 673). It is, unquestionably, 'one of the most staggeringly intense films ever made' (Rayns, 2011: 811-812). A relentless tour de force, it leaves an enduring memory like few other films, silent or spoken. ‘It’s magisterial cinema, and almost unbearably moving’ (Rayns, 2011: 811-812).
Shot in France in 1927, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc stars Renée/Maria Falconetti, who is truly unforgettable – Kael noting that it ‘may be the finest performance ever recorded on film’ (2004: 673) – and, remarkably, her last of only two feature films. It was cut by the French upon release and banned in Britain until 1930. The original negative was lost in a fire and a second re-edit is also thought to have perished in the same manner. For fifty years it was known in only mutilated form until, in 1981, a Danish version was discovered in a Norwegian mental institution, and a restored version was released in 1985.
Based on authentic trial records kept in the Bibliothèque de la Chambres des Deputes, in Paris, the film draws 'on artistic styles from the Renaissance to the avant-garde' (Parkinson, 2006: 933) and describes the last day(s) of Joan’s life before being burned at the stake at Rouen, in 1431, aged nineteen, for sorcery and witchcraft.
The film is noted for its close-ups, especially faces, mostly notably Falconetti, but also of her judges, theologians and guards. In a sense, the film it is not to be recommended, as it is so harrowing to watch as it builds to its inevitable horrific ending. What makes this austere and stark work so hard to watch, is that Joan is portrayed, as is evident from the written account of the trial, as a vulnerable young woman and in nearly every scene she is seen weeping. Exposed to her judges’ trickery, tormenting guards, and torture, it is undeniable distressing, despite the passing of ninety years.
The actors chosen to play the scheming French clergy (loyal to the English during the Hundred Years’ War) are well chosen, for their grotesque faces are clearly intended to show the wickedness of the Church. The chief judge’s face has noticeable warts on it, for example, and another, who is largely bald, has wisps of hair just above the temples that he turns up – and look like the horns of the Devil. Indeed, Alleva wrote that Joan’s prosecutors are ‘condemned by their own faces.’ Her judges ask her such impenetrable questions as: ‘How do you know a good angel from an evil angel?’ The film was banned in Britain for the way it depicted English soldiers (and the clergy?).
The remarkable black and white photography by Rudolph Maté is extraordinary, not only for the facial close-ups and the change of pace at the burning with the resulting riot, but for the images that linger, like the window bars that reflect as a cross on the flagstone floor, Joan having her hair cropped, and real blood spurting forth from a real puncture during the blood-letting scene (though it was not Falconetti’s arm). Yet, as Rayns put it, ‘The entire film is less moulded in light than carved in stone’ (Rayns, 2011: 811-812), and as stone it will endure through the ages and, at a personal level, continue to influence my practice.
Falconetti, who had suffered mental illness all her life, died in Brazil in 1946, aged fifty-four, reputedly from a self-imposed restrictive diet. She was cremated and her grave is to be found in Montmartre Cemetery, Paris.
Alleva, R. (2005) The Films of Carl Dreyer. Commonweal, (2005-03-25).
Parkinson, D. (2006) The Passion of Joan of Arc. In Kilmeny Fane-Saunders (ed.) Radio Times Guide to Films 2007 (BBC Worldwide, London).
Rayns, A. (2011) The Passion of Joan of Arc. In Pym, J. (ed.) Time Out Film Guide (Time Out Guides, London).
Kael, P. (2004) In a review of The Passion of Joan of Arc. In J. Walker (ed.) Halliwell’s Film, Video and DVD Guide 2005 (HarperCollins, London).