Blind Spot: The Passion of Joan of Arc

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Back in my days of high-school, in my third year of Français. My teacher chose to show us this film since we were learning about the history of France. I took great pleasure in sleeping through most of the films hour and a half run time, all the way up until the films depiction of Joan’s death by fire. Surprisingly, there was a time were I didn’t appreciate film as a powerful medium. In high-school film was simply a form of entertainment and silent films did not fall into that category. Flash forward to the present day to a time where I almost near completion of community college, and giving The Passion of Joan of Arc the attention it deserves.

Joan of Arc (Renee Maria Falconetti) is brought to trail for Heresy. The judges attempt to stray Joan away from her claim that God assigned her to drive the English away from France. When the judges methods of trick questions fail to make her incriminate herself, and aware she is illiterate; they attempt to trick her by a writing false letter from her king. Joan remains steadfast in her faith even through the torture chamber. The judges decide the only way to have Joan give up is to burn her publicly at a stake, but not without one more plea from the public and judges to convince Joan to give up and tell “the truth”.

Many know Joan of Arc through her brave Heroism and time spent on the battlefield, however Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer was not concerned with showing those heroic moments of her life. The films focus is based off the transcripts of the actual trial. The film spends time analyzing Joan and her judges through shockingly detailed shots of their faces accompanied by the use of intertitles. Falconetti’s face is almost haunting due to how well she was able to show her pain and sorrow through facial expressions. Now in most films it would be easy to identify with Joan and really feel for her poor treatment, but it’s slightly difficult here because the way the film is shot is strange. When conversations between two people in this film occurred, it almost always was a close up shot. There was not hints as to who was talking to who, and the over the shoulder shots we are used to seeing weren’t used. Even the angles when a judge responds back Joan breaks the traditional angles. In a way it’s effective because I felt uncomfortable when the camera was close up to a judges’ old face, which may be the way Joan felt surrounded by all these men. There was a few moments where I did feel for her and that’s when she was physically mistreated, it sparked up emotions in those short moments. Overall, I just felt like I was watching this trial and witnessing a girl in great distress with each shot of her face looking as if it could belong at any moment in the film. To contradict myself in a way, I was impressed with her completely standing up in what she believes in despite what others think.

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It’s easily the best looking film from the silent era that I’ve seen thanks to a brilliant restoration by the Criterion Collection. The original prints of this film were actually burned in a fire, however strangely enough; the original print was found in a closet of a Norwegian mental institution in 1981. In addition to restoring the original print. The type of black and white film used highlights every detail of the faces, and the use of lighting on their faces contribute to make the images even sharper particularly for the judges.

The face of Falconetti only appears in one major film The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s unfortunate because she has graced Cinema with one of the best on screen performances in history, but due to the fact there’s no other roles to compare face too, we only know her for this film. To dive further into that last sentence, it almost feels like this film was recorded live in 1431. Jean Cocteau puts it best when he said the film played like “an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist”. It would have been great to see Falconetti in more films but she reached an iconic and legendary status from this role. Everything in this film is shown through the faces rather then being filled with words, however the intertitles that were included helped me make it through this film.

I’ve watched a few silent films and most are accompanied by a orchestrated piece, but I thought the version I watched was wrong because it was completely silent. I had to stop the film a view times to run a view errands or eat dinner. In one segment of watching this film I was at the dinner table concentrating deeply on the face of Falconetti through my mobile device. Thus prompting my sister to ask me “are you still watching that silent film? You look like you’re starting at the table”. I know there is a version where a score called Voice of Light was composed by Richard Einhorn in 1994 and I hear it plays very well for those interested. 

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The film not only looks beautiful it has some impressive camerawork considering the date of it’s release. The shot I love most in this film is the tracking shot of the judges as they whisper from one to the next, and try to come up with a tricky question to ask Joan. The shot is close up while fluidly going across each face of the judges. There is also a sequence of the spiked wheel in the torture chamber spinning that intercuts with Joan watching it start to pick up speed. The camera gets so close up to the wheel even the viewer starts to become nauseated by the spinning, which eventually causes Joan to pass out. There is some other neat moves that happen in the film which look like it was done on a handheld camera.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film I admire more than a film I enjoy. It was tough making it through the length of the film with no sound, Immediately causing me to take a nap after it’s completion. I’m not sure how to express my thoughts on this film through words because I haven’t reached that level of writing yet. I do know that this film should be watched by everything who has a strong interest in film. It’s great to see where Cinema started, but even better to learn how the power of facial expressions can create moods and emotions without having a hint of sound. In addition to the praise of Falconetti according to Roger Ebert he said “For Falconetti, the performance was an ordeal. Legends from the set tell of Dreyer forcing her to kneel painfully on stone and then wipe all expression from her face—so that the viewer would read suppressed or inner pain. He filmed the same shots again and again, hoping that in the editing room he could find exactly the right nuance in her facial expression.”

No doubt The Passion of Joan of Arc is a masterpiece that has and will continued to be studied since it’s release in 1928. Throughout the rest of my life I will always have the image of Falconetti’s tears slowly rolling down her face, and remember the end of the film when the depiction of Joan’s death occurs; at only 19 years of age

Rating: ★★★★★ ★★★★★

Dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer

IMDb 8.3/10 – Rotten Tomatoes 97%

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For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert Great Movies Review

Matthew Dessem’s Criterion Collection Essay 

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