One of the towering achievements of world cinema, Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent classic THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is a stunningly filmed, harrowing account of the 15th century trial and execution of the French martyr.
In 1431 France, 19-year-old Joan of Arc (Renee Falconetti), who had successfully led troops against British occupation forces, is captured by the Burgundians, who are British allies, and taken to a court of ecclesiastics presided over by Bishop Cauchon (Eugene Silvain). Accused of heresy and
witchcraft, Joan is brought into court in chains and interrogated by a panel of judges who ask if she believes she was sent by God to save France; if she believes that God hates the English; and why she dresses like a man. She claims that Saint Michael has appeared to her in visions and that the
only reward she wants from God is the salvation of her soul, and demands to be taken to the Pope. The judges accuse her of rank blasphemy and she's taken to her jail cell. When she proclaims she will be rescued by a great victory and refuses to sign an abjuration, she's taken to the torture
chamber and faints after being threatened with chains, whips, and spikes.
Weak and feverish, Joan is bled by doctors and Cauchon tempts her with the Eucharist, but only if she signs the confession. She refuses and accuses the judges of being sent by the Devil. She's carried outside to the courtyard on a stretcher, and is given one last chance to recant or she will be
burned alive. She finally gives in and signs the confession, and is condemned to perpetual imprisonment. Soldiers throw her into a pond, then shave her head. Seeing a straw crown on the floor, Joan tells the judges that her confession was a lie and that she had denied God only to save her life.
She claims to be God's emissary and is sentenced to death. As a tearful crowd looks on, Joan is tied to a stake and set on fire. Joan is engulfed by flames, and the crowd is attacked by soldiers as they begin to riot.
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is one of the all-time masterpieces of pure cinema, not only for its unparalleled use of camera movement, composition, and editing, but for its transcendent spirituality and intense emotional impact. Dreyer based his script on actual transcripts of Joan's trial, which
took place over the course of 18 months, telescoping all of the events into one day, including her execution. The film was shot in chronological order over a six-month period, with exteriors taking place in a huge, specially-built castle, and interiors filmed in an empty automobile assembly plant.
The film is basically divided into three sections--the first interrogation, the jail cell and torture chamber, and the courtyard and the burning--with each one filmed in a specific, though not disparate, style. The first part has the queasy, claustrophobic atmosphere of a nightmare, containing
static close-ups of Joan's face, juxtaposed with long, slow pans and tracking shots of the row of malicious judges, with the camera occasionally swooping into their grotesque faces and bald heads (emphasized by Dreyer's eschewal of makeup), and framing them in stark contrast to the austere white
backgrounds of the set. Towards the end of the interrogation, Dreyer utilizes rhythmic cutting and camera movement as the judges turn their heads or sit back in their chairs. In the jail cell and torture chamber, Dreyer almost exclusively uses extreme close-ups and montage to depict the increasing
terror from Joan's point of view. Her skin is jabbed with needles, the tops of spears march slowly out of frame, spiked-wheels spin, chains dangle menacingly, water pours through funnels, and after Joan faints, her blood spurts into a pan when the doctors bleed her.
When Joan is carried outside on a stretcher and then burned alive, Dreyer synthesizes several techniques, employing rapid tracking shots, expressionistic, low-angle compositions and overhead shots, as well as quick cuts to the faces of the watching crowd, birds flying in the sky, a child playfully
swinging on the gallows, and inserts of objects such as shovels, hooks, and bells. The effect is one of absolute authenticity and realism, but it's also entirely stylized and poetic, prompting Jean Cocteau to observe that the film "seems like an historical document from an era in which the cinema
didn't exist." The actual burning of Joan is one of the most painful and horrifying sequences in the history of film, as she cries out "Jesus" and flames engulf her, ending with a haunting, smoke-filled silhouette. Rene Falconetti was discovered by Dreyer while she was performing boulevard comedy,
and she was chosen for the part of Joan after he had considered Lillian Gish. Her performance is startling in its naked vulnerability, which Dreyer reputedly obtained by subjecting her to harsh treatment, and ironically, while this film would make her an icon, it would turn out to be the only one
she ever made. (Graphic violence, nudity, adult situations.)
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- Review: One of the towering achievements of world cinema, Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent classic THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is a stunningly filmed, harrowing account of the 15th century trial and execution of the French martyr. In 1431 France, 19-year-old Joan of A… (more)