Here we are once again, the second in a series where I review one of the many films screened in Timothy White’s film courses here on campus. The cinematic roster White curates for his film classes vary widely on the timeline, ranging from silent-era classics to modern think pieces.
We previously dove into science fiction horror with director Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, “Alien.” Now, we turn our attention to the year 1928, in the early days of film history with Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
A chronicle of the trial and execution of St. Jeanne d’Arc — “The Maid of Orléans,” the French heroine who inspired them to victory against the English occupation of France in the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years’ War — the film studies the final days of Joan of Arc’s life. All through a lens of Dreyer’s superlative filmmaking and by virtue of one of the most celebrated performances of all time in Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s exquisite interpretation of the titular saint.
As I would certainly imagine, Dreyer's inquiry into the life of a religiously persecuted figure maintains a startling efficacy to modern audiences accustomed to the modern blockbusters of today, especially when noting the film has recently passed its 90th anniversary.
Nearing a century in age, the film still holds a palpable humanistic density that — through a time-traveling cross-examination between the narrative’s 15th-century setting, the film’s production in the 1920s, and to our present days — demonstrates that certain human emotions are constant through the centuries.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” is so explicitly concentrated on the Joan of Arc character that the entire frame — sporting the 4:3 Academy ratio, with black bars on either side of the screen — is often occupied by the sledgehammer facial expressions of Falconetti as she wavers between consummate melancholy, fear, sympathy, surprise and bravery in the face of the accusers prosecuting her on charges of heresy.
As much as the film has been analyzed over the years for its high quantity of close-up shots, the Academy ratio being the favored aspect ratio for faces, I instead took more notice to Dreyer's use of shapes. Specifically, the disparity between his geometric designs when applying the so-called bouba/kiki effect. This effect is a theoretical, psychologically-motivated mapping between speech sounds and the visual shape of objects.
Shapes with bulbous features and smooth lines are received as being benign, passive shapes, that of the “bouba,” whereas those labeled as “kiki” sport jagged, sharp lines in their construction, leading to reactions of discomfort and negativity.
Applying this general theory to “The Passion of Joan of Arc” comes in with the features of our characters and of the environment. Joan of Arc's features are round and delicate, as are the features of the few characters in the film who deem her a saint, the crown she later wears and in the Christian cross she embraces before being set to the pyre.
Conversely, the clergymen have sharp curls in their hair — one of them even possesses quasi-devil horns, while another is missing teeth, with those remaining being jagged. Not to mention the torture devices with their numerous spikes found later in the film and the saw blades lined up on the wall positing a most terrible omen.
Carrying on this theme in duality, Dreyer makes a point in filming the dismissive, cackling priests in high-contrast lighting while Joan of Arc is captured in low-contrast lighting, adding to this soft-and-hard distinction in geometry.
The production design is highly minimalist, allowing for a focus on the characters and their reactive emotions rather than in the surrounding architecture of the environment. Most shots consist of only a face and a white, nondescript background. However, there are numerous shots focusing on props as well. For example, Joan of Arc's crown, her hair being swept across the ground, the shackles on her legs and in the small stool she is given to sit on during her arraignment. These are to be the symbols of her torment and death.
I am surprised by how graphic the film is as the final moments consist of several cutaways to our heroine’s burning corpse as it is slowly blackened and made still, particularly when several of these shots, among so many others, are captured from a low angle.
Technical filmmaking aside, the true power of this film comes from Falconetti's grand performance. Those glassy, massive eyes of hers are perpetually assaulted by tears, and the deliberate lack of makeup magnifies her raw performance. Her shifts from elation, as she ruminates on her blessings from God, to utter melancholy as she endures cruel words from the people who should instead praise her are catastrophic. It is astonishing to learn this film serves as only one of two in her acting career. What a powerhouse performer she would have been had she continued to act in film — though she did continue to act in theatre. Remarkable, that by this film alone, is she so heralded by historians and critics.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” is a stunning piece of work, a masterful exploration of facial expression, the demoralization of religious powers, and of the resilience of a woman condemned, herself incessantly matched against the good and evil of the world, and in the good and evil of heaven and hell.
It took roughly 500 years for the Catholic church to beatify and canonize Joan of Arc — the recognition that she entered heaven and in the posthumous naming of her sainthood. It did not take long, however, for Dreyer’s film to enter into the minds of the populace as one of the great masterworks of cinema.
As a postscript, it should be noted that there are several versions of this film, with distinctive runtimes, frame rates and scores. For this review, upon a second viewing, I watched the 20 frames per second version with the 'Voices of Light' score as supplied by composer Richard Einhorn. This version is the often preferred viewing experience.
My rating: 9.4/10