In 1431 Rouen, in the midst of a ravaging Hundred Years War with England, a nineteen year old French peasant girl named Jeanne was condemned to death by the church tribunal for heresy, and burned at the stake. Based on the historical transcripts of the actual trial, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is an eviscerating experimental film of faith, suffering, and redemption. The film opens with a tracking shot of the English guards outside the courtroom, then to the clerical judges, as Jeanne (Renee Maria Falconetti) is escorted inside. The inquisitors hover over Jeanne, relentlessly questioning her faith and patriotism, waiting for any incriminating statement that would seal her fate. Unable to ensnare her in their verbal traps, she is led away to her cell, only to be taunted by prison guards as the daughter of God, placing a woven crown upon her head. A monk named Loyseleur (Maurice Schutz) forges a letter from King Charles in an attempt to entrust him into her confidence. The judges follow Loyseleur to her cell to continue their questioning. Loyseleur initially reassures Jeanne through subtle visual cues, but then abandons her when asked if she is in a state of grace. A sympathetic young monk, Massieu (Antonin Artaud), warns of the danger of the posed question, to which Jeanne summarily replies: “If I am, may God keep me there. If I am not, may God grant it to me.” Her response confounds the calculating judges, and compel them to employ a different tactic: physical torture. Confused and afraid, Jeanne collapses at the sight of the barbaric devices in the chamber. Brought outside the courtroom as a public spectacle, a weak and delirious Jeanne reluctantly signs the confession, and her death sentence is commuted. Returned to cell, her courage and faith are restored by the sight of the woven crown, and implores Cauchon (Eugene Silvain) that she wishes to recant. Unable to force Jeanne into submission, the judges sentence her to death.
Dreyer’s startling and innovative camerawork in The Passion of Joan of Arc creates visual imbalance. The courtroom scene recreates the abusive atmosphere of the inquisition by filming the oppressive judges upward, which contrast with the images of a victimized Jeanne filmed downward. The pervasive use of variable distance close-ups (a technique similar employed in Patrice Leconte’s Monsieur Hire) is claustrophobic, revealing the opportunistic judges’ ulterior motives, as they carefully craft a means to ensnare Jeanne with their leading questions and insincere actions. The odd angle shots of the street performers, prison guards, and judges further exaggerate their physical features, creating a sense of the grotesque – in essence, an external manifestation of their innate inhumanity. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a profoundly moving, indelible film of courage and perseverance, spirituality and conscience; a fitting tribute to the memory of the Maid of Orleans: a heroine, a martyr, a saint.
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