Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Film: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

We should get a couple of things straight right off the top here. I consider myself a non-theist, which is a baby step away from agnostic. I don’t go to church regularly, or at all. I don’t believe in the power of prayer, I don’t believe in a higher power that intercedes for people, and I don’t believe in the normal Christian version of the afterlife (good or bad). I’ve toyed around with a variety of religious beliefs in the past, and find that if I had to pick one, I’d probably go primarily with Buddhism despite my liberal Christian upbringing. I’m also of the opinion that religion—not faith, mind you, but religion—has been responsible for the vast majority of evil done in this world historically and today as well.

I wanted that clear from the beginning, because The Passion of Joan of Arc is the closest thing I’ve had to a religious experience in well over a year. I’m not saying this is a positive or a negative, but something that is simply true. This is not a happy church service; it’s much more akin to dealing with the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials, but it’s still a church service.

This film was based on the transcripts of the actual trial of Jeanne d’Arc. Every line that she “speaks” (or at least every line attributed to her in the intertitles) comes from the transcript of the trial. And speak she does, as do the men who are questioning her. In fact, it appears initially that there is little to this film beyond the heads of Jeanne (Maria Falconetti) and her accusers. Dreyer evidently spent a huge sum on the sets, and then basically filmed faces, letting those sets go to waste.

I wouldn’t call this film plotless, but the plot that exists is pretty obvious and the resolution is known to anyone who knows even a touch of history. The film covers only her trial for heresy during which she is accused of being misled by Satan, and of being from Satan himself. Joan (I’ll stick with the English translation of her name) states that she believes she is inspired by God instead. She is tortured and threatened with burning at the stake, and she recants her position and officially claims that she has been misled. Then she decides that this was a mistake—she really was inspired by God, and she is killed horribly.

However, this is not a history lesson. It’s a passion play, and the correlation with the traditional passion play of Christ is intentional. Joan is mocked, abused, tortured, and then killed, all the while protesting her innocence and her inspiration from God.

For being essentially a simple story simply told, there is a lot going on here. Dreyer’s focus on the faces of the characters is a huge change from the typical silent film. None of the players wears any makeup, allowing their emotions to truly show through and giving these intensely close shots a greater sense of realism. What we see is a true dichotomy. Joan stands alone, face raised to her accusers (and also to the heavens) in simple, unadorned beauty. The accusers scowl down at her, and to a man, they are ferociously ugly—balding, warty, creased old men. The blocking here gives the impression that Joan stands below them, highlighting her powerlessness as well as their temporal power over her. But don’t kid yourself; Joan’s looking up at them also allows her to continuously look up to God, and this is no doubt intentional, or at least a happy side effect of her accusers standing above her.

The film absolutely belongs to Falconetti, who gives one of the greatest performances ever filmed. Her face incredibly expressive, shifting from horror to terror to sublime ecstasy at a moment’s notice. Despite her moments of rapture, there is not a moment in which she is filmed that she is also not in anguish of some type. This film is not about her redemption or her eventual elevation to Catholic sainthood, but about her martyrdom, and it pulls very few punches. Joan is in constant torment, and it is overwhelming at times. Falconetti is plainly beautiful, which is partly her own physical beauty and very much the emotional content of her performance. It is the fact that she plays these beliefs so strongly that gives her both the presence and the beauty she displays here.

Dreyer never developed a definitive soundtrack for this film, and so it is frequently shown with no music or sound. Fortunately, there is available a version with a soundtrack called “Voices of Light,” which was developed specifically for the film. The soundtrack is glorious, particularly so if you are a fan of liturgical music. It greatly enhances the film experience.

Once again, as with many films, I can’t say that I enjoyed watching this, but I am very glad that I did. I may not be a religious person, or even in favor of most religious thought, but this is a religious experience I am happy to have undergone. Perhaps the most telling thing I can say about it is that I don’t think it would be improved with speech. It’s exactly right the way it is.

Why to watch La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc: One of the greatest filmed performances in the 100+ years of film.
Why not to watch: You’ll walk away from this drained.


  1. Like you I was absolutely astonished by this film and if I walk away from "The Book" with one film that I probably wouldn't have seen without it's inclusion, it would be this one. My first viewing was on TCM and Robert Osborne said that Falconetti was an highly accomplished stage actor, and Dreyer was so extremely demanding in his direction, requiring hours of kneeling on stone floors (confirmed on Wikipedia if that counts as an authority) that Falconetti never returned to the screen.

    I consider Bill Maher my spiritual leader, but still tend to see greatness in certain films of faith. Dreyer's masterpieces, Bergman's Trilogy of Faith. I include Gibson's "Passion Play" as well but more for the achievement of resurrecting dead languages.

  2. The story of it's rediscovery in the closet of a Norwegian Mental Hospital seems almost fitting.

  3. Heh. Bill Maher. He's a little harsher than I am, but I like where he takes things. You might also enjoy Bill Hicks if you don't know his work.

    My problem has never been with faith, but with religion, and there's a significant difference.

  4. I have been a fan of Mr. Hicks for many years. He was definitely out there as well with his flying saucer tour and the defense of smoking as a civil liberty. My surprise at learning he was dead just as I was getting into him was a definite downer.

    Another Dreyer Silent I found interesting was "Leaves From Satan's Book" although I hear he was influenced by Griffith, you may find this a little better constructed.

    I can't wait to here what you say about "Haxan", another of them Scandanavian silents.

  5. Heh.


  6. Your reason "Why to watch" - "One of the greatest filmed performances in the 100+ years of film" - perfectly sums up my thoughts on the film. Such a brilliant performance in one of the most moving films ever made - and it's silent!

  7. It's one of the most mesmerizing things I've ever seen.

  8. I need to see this one again, but from what I remember from a few years ago, it was pretty powerful. Of the major Dreyer films (and there's really just "Vampyr," "Joan of Arc," "Ordet," "Day of Wrath,"and "Gertrud" that I know of)I would have to say "Day of Wrath" really stayed with me the most, though I was impressed by all of them (Even the old-fashioned "Gertrud." Interestingly to me, "Day of Wrath," is the only one of these films not listed in the 1001 movie book.

  9. This was my first exposure to Dreyer, and I admit that I'm now game for more. The only other one I've heard much on is Vampyr, and what I've heard is pretty ambivalent.

  10. It is really weird. Usually I agree in the reviews and this is obviously a movie that everybody adores. Being a contender for Best movie ever is no small achivement and here in Denmark we take some pride in Dreyer. So it was with great anticipation I sat down to watch this one.
    But I was so disapointed. Maybe it was that nothing really happened. Maybe it was that I got annoyed with Falconetti. Or maybe my expectations (as was the case with Metropolis) were just way too high.
    And then funny enough Vampyr is generally disliked while I find it a lot more interesting than Jeanne d'arc. But then, I also like Bunuel... The weirder the better.

    1. Bunuel and Dreyer are both hit-or-miss for me. While I admit that there's not a lot to see here in terms of visuals or scenery, I found I didn't need it. Falconetti was enough for me, and her face told the whole story of this film. I can see this one being talked up, though--at some point, it might not be possible for it to live up to expectations.

      My older daughter will be in Denmark in 2-3 weeks in a town called Ringkobing on the Jutland coast.

    2. I hope it will be during summer. As delightful that place is in summer as dreadful Ringkøbing can be at any other season. Ringkøbing is known for three things: Tourism, wind turbines and being the hub of the national tax authority.

      What brings her to Denmark?

    3. She'll be in Ringkobing the June 20-23 (I think--I might be off a day or two). She's touring with a ballet company for three weeks and through four countries.

    4. Sounds fun. I wish her a nice stay.