Trial of Joan of Arc opens to the austere, fragmented image of the hurried footsteps of an indistinguishable figure dressed in a black robe. Carrying a parchment into the vestibule of a chapel, an unidentified woman delivers a personal statement on her daughter’s religious upbringing and death at the hands of the church, visibly supported by two sympathetic advocates. The somber and official tone of the grieving mother’s testament is subsequently reflected in the demeanor of the accused, Jeanne d’Arc (Florence Delay), who is first introduced through a shot of her manacled hands as she places them on an opened Bible before beginning her sworn testimony in front of the presiding judge, Bishop Cauchon (Jean-Claude Fourneau). Direct, rational, and resolute in her conviction, her responses are met with skepticism and contempt by the clergy who are eager for an expedient disposition of her case in order to appease the British authorities. However, unable to break her will, Jeanne is subjected to interminable cross-examinations, secret monitoring by unscrupulous British guards, and threats of physical torture and violation in an attempt to force a confession on the charges of heresy and witchcraft, in order to ensure her death sentence by burning at the stake.
In contrast to the highly emotive, polarized, and concentrated inquisition of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Robert Bresson’s filmic adaptation, similarly based on the actual transcripts of the trial, is emotionally muted, bureaucratic, and methodical. Through a ritualistic presentation of Jeanne’s imprisonment and trial, Bresson visually correlates Jeanne’s inviolable conviction with her spiritual redemption: the intrusive sound of foreign (English) voices as courtroom spectators call for Jeanne’s death and British guards systematically peer through a hole into her prison cell; Jeanne’s tempered and deliberate responses to the judges’ interrogation that is visually reflected in her depiction through medium shots; the disembodied framing of the quick footsteps in the opening sequence that is contrasted against repeated images of Jeanne’s shackled feet in the prison cell. Inevitably, as the symbol of Jeanne’s physical captivity is visually transformed in the shot of her rushed footsteps as she is led to the stake, her corporeal station of oppression and human suffering is transfigured into an indelible image of purity, spiritual liberation, and eternity.
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