Thursday, March 4, 2010
The Passion of Joan of Arc
I was slightly wary of taking on a silent film, howsoever acclaimed. A musical score by Einhorn (later appended) is available in the DVD as an option. The score is deservedly praised for being a great piece of music, but I find it distracting, since the movie was conceived as silent cinema and has more than enough power to sustain itself on it's silent feet. It is a movie on which the word mesmeric is not too much of an exaggeration. It reveals what is possible within the limits of silent cinema. In fact, silence becomes an asset in a theme so elevated, since no amount of acting can easily scale this stratum of life, a whisker away from the primeval mystery of life and death. ( Einhorn's choral composition is a worthy companion piece but redundant and intrusive as a score.) Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ , on a similar theme, is also after all virtually silent. Dreyer's film peers far deeper into the soul than Gibson, for the focus of the camera is unsparingly on the face and expressions of Joan and the inquisitors. Dreyer, unlike Gibson, is much more interested in what is going on within Joan's heart than outside. Dreyer's Joan is an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. Pauline Kael called Renee Maria Falconetti's portrayal of Joan the greatest cinematic performance. Indeed, we see the courageous young girl locked in a battle of faith, a monumental inner struggle between her "voices" and the grimacing faces of her tormentors, as she hurtles to her doom at least in the usual sense of the word. The struggle is all too human a one and between the director and the actress, an extraordinary dramatic portrayal has been achieved.
The film focuses on the trial of the nineteen year old girl just before she was burnt at the stake on charges of heresy. Joan of Arc was a fifteenth century peasant girl who reportedly after the age of twelve had a series of divine visitations exhorting her to lead the French to victory against the English occupation forces. Subsequently she did lead the French forces in a series of inspired victories. Finally she fell into the hands of elements favorable towards the English and found guilty in an orchestrated ecclestiastical trial. The transcripts of the trial are preserved in a remarkable document and the film bases itself on these. Joan was later declared a saint and her life acquired a legendary status, becoming an icon of French culture and nationalism. It is an achievement of this great film, to have captured this great drama, resembling those of Socrates and Jesus, in human terms.
The film spans a short period and the action takes place mostly in a makeshift court room. The film is in close up and we see the tears forming or rolling, beads of perspiration erupting, a fly settling on her eye, which she removes. The judges are now leering, now glaring or gesticulating threatningly with a finger. We are taken through a roller coaster of inner turmoil, as Joan reacts: in turn courageous, humiliated, scared. The acute angles of the walls thrust alarmingly inward and the dwarfish figures of the armed guards totter around in an inebriated medieval pantomime. The key element is the mysterious inner resource on which she draws and which has propelled this young girl through a series of military campaigns as an inspired leader
A soldier venturing into battle sees death as a distinct possibility but there is usually a good chance of not being harmed. He in no sense is choosing to die, though he is risking it, as we all do to a lesser degree when crossing a street. MLK also chose a path knowing the possibility of the ultimate cost but possibility is qualitatively different from certainty. If death be thought of lying at the summit of a staircase, in the case of Joan's case the trial may be thought of as a slow ascent, with a harrowing choice to be made at each step. She does falter and look back, as when she signs a "confession", but finally whatever call she hearkens to has the day. She doesn't want to die. She just wants to finish the job she has to do and then return to normal life and wear ordinary clothes. But fate won't have it so. There is nothing of perverted bigotry in her. She is just fortunate enough to have inside her something which is beyond ambiguity, the level of absolute certainty which is the great inner resource.
"Joan of Arc is so uplifted from the ordinary mass of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years."...Winston Churchill
"Had she not been as ordinarily human as she was, she would have been intolerable."...Shaw
Roger Ebert's review