Posted November 22, 2012 by Jonathan McCalmont in DVD/Blu-ray
 
 

The Passion of Joan of Arc


No image invokes as much sympathy as that of a human face with a tear rolling down its cheek.

No image invokes as much sympathy as that of a human face with a tear
rolling down its cheek.
Burned into the human brain by a million years of
evolution, this simple piece of neural circuitry lies at the very heart of the
cinematic experience. Every time a film makes you cry it is because your brain
is hardwired to feel sympathy for the pain and sadness of others. Censored by
fools, butchered by hacks and lost by short-sighted archivists, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a
powerful reminder of quite how much a director can achieve when he completely
surrenders to the powerful in-built urge to feel other people’s pain.

The film opens with a slow pan
across a medieval courtroom. English soldiers repose in various positions while
aging churchmen busy themselves with chains and bibles. The reason these people
are here is for the trial of Joan of Arc (Maria
Falconetti
), a young French peasant woman whose visions and religious
fervour inspired her countrymen in their war against the English. Now captured
by the English, Joan is held by a group of churchmen who will not rest until
she has been exposed as a fraud, a heretic, a witch, or possibly all three at
once. Simple of plot and minimalistic in terms of dialogue, the film’s chief
joy lies in Dreyer’s thematic use of cinematography to explore the differences
between the mystical and beautiful world inhabited by Joan and the corrupt and
sinister realm that is home to the men persecuting her.

Dreyer sketches Joan’s reality in
devastatingly simple terms. Rather than rely upon backstory or dialogue to
present Joan as some sort of saint or revolutionary, Dreyer limits himself to
filming Joan’s face as a means of emphasising her simple humanity. Falconetti’s
almost wordless performance is rightly hailed as one of the greatest in
cinematic history as beatific smiles and tears of sorrow pass across her
delicate features like clouds over the Earth. With every frown and every sigh,
Falconetti conveys the astonishing richness of Joan’s inner world… a world so
rich it could only be home to a madwoman or a saint. Forever staring off into
the distance, Joan is somehow distant from the physical world that surrounds her;
she is out of place in something as worldly as a courtroom.

Dreyer depicts the churchmen by creating
a mirror opposite of his depiction of Joan; where Joan is inscrutable, the
churchmen are transparent. Where Joan is beautiful, the churchmen are ugly.
While Joan looks up in hope and reverence, the churchmen look down in disdain
and condemnation. Though Dreyer’s churchmen may claim to
represent a higher spiritual power, everything about them speaks to their worldly
nature. For example, while Joan is usually filmed against a brilliant white
backdrop, the churchmen are associated with such physical and worldly objects
as architectural features, weapons, thrones, and torture implements.

Having set up a clear distinction
between Joan’s immaterial existence and the crudely physical world of the
churchmen, Dreyer sets about dragging Joan into the material realm. Indeed, one
of the film’s most shocking moments comes when a group of English soldiers cut
Joan’s hair, steal her ring and adorn her with religious icons. The sense of
sacrilege and trespass is so tangible as to be almost sickening and yet the
sacrilege flows not from the debasement of holy object but from the idea that
as pure a spirit as Joan might be shackled to such crude symbols of human
piety. This sense of debasement grows and grows until Joan is finally burned at
the stake. As the peasants rise up in outrage, churches begin to disgorge
weapons and a great tide of filth and destruction washes across the screen. The
last image of purity we have is of the smoke rising from Joan’s blackened
carcass… clearly this world has no place for the pure.

Like many of the silent films
released by Masters of Cinema in
recent months, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a powerful
reminder of how much can be accomplished with limited technological
resources. While Hollywood spends
billions producing films that struggle to make you feel anything other than
boredom, Dreyer invokes the full weight of human sympathy by showing a tear
roll down an actress’s cheek. The film’s heavy reliance upon images of human
faces (both pure and impure) really makes the Blu-ray release worth shelling
out for. Beautifully restored and absolutely crystalline in its clarity, this
film perfectly demonstrates the depths of humanity locked up in every tear and
every wrinkle. Despite being intensely metaphysical in tone, this is possible
one of the most humane films ever made.


Jonathan McCalmont