The Passion of Joan of Arc eludes easy explanation. Every viewing cements it as one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, but it’s hard for me to explain why. It’s a film that shouldn’t work. The film is overwrought, sequences are paced and framed in awkward ways, and the constant adherence to close-ups is stifling.
A romantic could argue that it works in spite of these “flaws,” but I don’t think they’re flaws. I think director/editor Carl Theodor Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Maté are working at something larger, something beyond just making a technically clean and aesthetically straightforward film. This isn’t a historical recounting of the trial of Joan of Arc (Maria Falconetti), it’s an onslaught on the eyes, a visual torment.
The framing of the film is awkward, people are too low or too high in the frame, faces uncomfortably fill up the frame. It’s as if the camera is capturing a presence isn’t there. There are shots that are more interested in the plain walls than Maria Falconetti’s face. The camera is constantly switching perspectives on Falconetti, sometimes looking down at her, other times gazing up toward her.
As technically strange as the framing is, there’s something about that which makes it oddly beautiful. The amount of negative space within a single image sucks you into that frame. It’s strangely alluring, the dynamic and off-kilter images create unusual perspectives and angles.
Compounding the dissonance of the images is the haunting, otherworldly performance of Maria Falconetti. One could accuse it of being over-wrought, but a careful observer will marvel at how precise and controlled her performance is. She often makes simple movements that are done in such a way that they evoke poses and postures of religious paintings; it’s an ethereal, illuminated flow almost more of the spirit than of the body.
And her eyes alone often can convey the entire emotional punch of a moment. Hope, despair and doubt are expressed with a simple cast of the eyes across the room or the reluctance to meet the leering gazes of her tormenters.
Ultimately, these strange techniques allow the film to display anguish beyond the mortal realm. In contrast to the contemporary The Passion of the Christ, a film primarily interested in the spectacle of the physical torment Jesus Christ, The Passion of Joan of Arc is more interested in the torment of the soul or spirit. Joan gains the sympathy of the audience not because they believe her claims, but because they can’t help but sympathize with a fellow soul in pure anguish.
This is not to say the film circumvents spiritual importance by allowing the audience to sympathize with Joan without believing with her. If anything, it’s even more spiritually important and impactful than The Passion of the Christ because it serves as a testament of the importance of the soul. Whether or not Joan dies is almost inconsequential to the proceedings, it’s her soul, her spirit, her essence that must be preserved. Joan’s body is week, feeble and frail; it’s her soul that makes her strong. Those are the stakes, not life or death, but the battle over an individual’s soul, perhaps the strangest and most exciting battlefield a storyteller could make as their backdrop.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing