Jeanne d'Arc (Maria Falconetti) has been captured after trying to lead a revolution in France against the occupying English forces, and now she is to stand trial. We have an accurate record of that event thanks to a transcript surviving down the centuries, so we can conceive of what that was like for her as she was put on the spot about her deeply held religious beliefs, and the accompanying visions she witnessed that she claimed were sent to her by God Almighty Himself. This was regarded as blasphemy by the Church, and the judges implored Jeanne to recant all that and admit she was a sinner, yet she had her faith and that was so strong she was wholly confident that she would see her reward in Heaven...
One of the most intense silent movies ever made, it is accurate to say The Passion of Joan of Arc, or La passion de Jeanne d'Arc if you preferred the French, was not exactly a laugh a minute, indeed there was a mood of ecstatic misery from start to finish in a work that largely concentrated on the face of its leading lady in tightly focused closeups. Director Carl Theodor Dreyer also offered closeups of her tormentors, contrasting Jeanne's sensitive, tear-stained features with the harsh, unforgiving faces of the judges and priests, which for some can mean a monotonous experience, yet for others delivers one of the most moving and tragic cinematic excursions into historical record ever created for the screen.
However, Dreyer intended it as a tribute to religious purity when confronted with a corruption of that faith, fully on the side of his heroine, and nowadays it looks rather different. If you are not particularly sold on the idea of the religion depicted, the battle for Jeanne's soul more resembles a bunch of evil old men torturing a mentally ill teenage girl, and all for a display of power that for the English was a quashing of the revolt, and for the revolutionaries a blow against oppression. But by reducing the story to such a personal level all the wars that were going on become, if not an irrelevance, then diminished when you cotton on to the portrayal of this young woman, perhaps an innocent, perhaps deluded, being beaten down by her persecutors.
Of course, this was more than bullying, it was of international importance, but that is not the way it feels as Falconetti's face, which at times looks barely comprehending of why this is happening to her, to add to the harsh poignancy, casts eyes heavenward to implore her God to give her guidance as to how to cope with her ordeal. That much of the dialogue was taken from the transcript meant many intertitles appear to inform us of what was said, did tend to interrupt the flow of imagery, though it is difficult to know how else Dreyer could have achieved all he wanted to do otherwise, but there was a sense of him being unwilling to allow his pictures to speak for themselves. A respected stage comedienne, Falconetti never made another film after this, which only renders her performance all the more captivating.
Dreyer insisted on no makeup for his cast, which in his actress's case (she is the sole significant female here, and the only one seen until the crowd at the execution come the end) made her emotions that more nakedly plain, uncomfortably so. Make no mistake, the impression is that you're not here to enjoy yourself, and if you're not intended to suffer as much as poor Jeanne then you should have some idea of what it was like to be her in that situation, which is a remarkable achievement in itself, to place the audience straight into the mind of an individual from so long ago. This also creates a disturbing mood as we all know what happened to Jeanne, but the actual mechanics of it, the cruelty and barbarism of executing her, is vividly illustrated to the degree that the viewer may want to get so close to that kind of ghastly death. Curiously, she loses her innocence yet keeps her naivety. In its way, an account both alien to all that's decent and familiar to anyone who has had to deal with victimisation, be that religious or political, even social, Dreyer's efforts here remained sadly relevant.