The Film: The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Principles: Carl Theodore Dreyer, Maria Falconetti, Antonin Artaud

The Premise:  The Passion is a recreation of Joan’s trial and execution. All the dialogue (such as there is — the film is silent) is taken from the actual trial records. Other than a few deviations, it’s a fairly authentic depiction of her final days.  It’s essentially a Catholic passion play, but to describe it as such really grounds it in dogmatic dullness. Dreyer’s film is much, much more than that.

Is It Good: It’s a Criterion selection, so it’s sublime. It’s also a simple film. There’s little dialogue presented to the audience, the sets are thinly sketched, the characters are nameless, there’s no Victory of Orleans to spice up the plot.   It’s just the poor farm girl from Arc, being berated, spat on, and threatened by a room of ominous priests.  Falconetti is the film, as the story plays out almost entirely on her face.  The camera rarely breaks from her tight close up, and you see every sob, every tear, every strangled breath.  While there are moments of wide-eyed fervor, Falconetti doesn’t play this as a future saint.  She plays it as a girl absolutely terrified of her questioners, torture and death. Pauline Kael famously described her performance as one of the finest ever captured on cinema, and it’s one you have to see to believe. One could debate whether it was Dreyer’s notoriously brutal methods that elevated her performance, but the soul of it has to be hers and hers alone.

Modern moviegoers may complain there’s no inner monologue, or that the film doesn’t stop to ask whether she’s crazy or lying.  Joan does falter, though.  When faced with burning, she does abjure, before immediately recanting and going to her death.  It’s another scene that’s more about the performance than the plot point.  Falconetti’s eyes flicker, she hesitates. Surely these scholars really know more than she does?  She’s been taught to follow the Chuch all her life. Isn’t the Church infallible? The audience is at once Joan and the religious jury, salivating at the thought of her slipping up and revealing that she’s utterly mad.

It’s the only moment her faith wavers, and it feels as though the film itself bolsters her up. Dreyer knows (as should you) that the nature of her visions aren’t important. Joan believed them, so much so that she was willing to die for them. Her conviction is the story, and all that matters.  Scholars, documentarians, and filmmakers who obsess over whether she drank bad milk or may have been visited by Dustin Hoffman have missed that essential point.  

Is It Worth A Look:  Absolutely. It’s worth owning, as is the modern soundtrack by Einhorn. (If you buy the Criterion disc, it comes as an option.  If you stream it on Netflix, I recommend buying it and syncing it up. Purists prefer it silent, but I think it adds a medieval chill.) The Passion is one of the most immersive experiences you’ll ever have.   Even though there’s not a dank stone wall to be found on the set, The Passion never feels as though you’re watching a fictional recreation of Joan’s trial.  It’s as though you’re actually watching it happen. This is all due to the actors, all of whom look as though they’ve been lifted from medieval paintings and sculpture.  These are authentic Old World faces, and that smooths out even the hammier performances.   Don’t think the film skimps out on the end, either. The film follows Joan all the way to the stake, and forces you to watch until she is no more. If you go into it looking for horror, you’re going to feel very guilty.

This isn’t exactly a lost or unknown film — many of you have probably watched it in film class — and picking it feels a little silly since we all worship Criterion.  But perhaps it’s a movie you’ve been putting off watching, or need to see again. Consider this your reminder. You don’t even have to wait, it’s streaming on Netflix Instant.

Random Anecdotes: The Passion of Joan of Arc was made only eight years after Joan was actually canonized as a saint.  The film was lost for decades, as the master copy had been destroyed in a fire. Dreyer tried to reassemble it from outtakes, but died thinking it was lost. A complete print was found in 1981 in — of all places — a janitor’s closet in a mental asylum in Oslo.

Cinematic Soulmates:  The Passion of the Christ (I know, but you have to admit Gibson tortured Caviezel to a similar effect), Haxan