A film of faces. A tapestry of close ups. A story told with minimalism and grace. Joan of Arc’s trial and execution is one of history’s worst instances of the power of government over the individual. It’s an important tale to tell, filmed by Dreyer with quiet compassion and intense intimacy.
Intimate intensity may seem like an oxymoron but, as this film proves, this is not always the case. The simplistic approach, relying primarily on close ups and faces to tell the story, allows for intimacy. A closeness to the action. Like we’re all there. Yet it’s this same intimacy that leads to intensity. We feel the metaphorical spotlight. We feel the fear, fervour, fire. We feel the trial.
Beyond the stylistic attributes, there’s a timeless theme at the root. An important one to note, too. Oppression at the hands of a malevolent state. The persecution of the individual. The person against the mob. To say that Joan was killed by religion would be erroneous. She was killed by the forces of government. It is now regarded as a sham of a trial, performed for dubious secular reasons. They used religion and the concept of canon law to get rid of someone who posed a threat to their goals, despite the fact that according to such laws Joan was innocent. Nonetheless, biblical law was cited to justify her execution. From this, one can conclude that it is Joan's version of faith, not that of the prosecution, which is the purer representation of Christian principles. We don't need to be religious spectators to see that.
Again, this film is one of the best arguments against state interference in both the lives of individuals and in religious matters. It's timeless because even today, all across the world, liberty and the natural right of freedom are being infringed upon and vehemently defended with equal measure. Indeed, Joan was fighting tyranny when she was captured. This film makes an impassioned plea to its viewers, through the face of Joan, against such malicious forces of oppression.
Joan's courage, devotion and strength is fully realised by Falconetti's shattering performance. It is often cited as perhaps the best female performance on film. Beyond that, some would even say the greatest performance full stop. Well, it's hard to measure such subjective feats but it is certainly up there as one of the all time bests. Praise should also be extended to the rest of the cast. They too offered devotion to the film, fully complying with Dreyer's strict policies and the hard work required to obtain this film's ambitious and striking realism.
It's crucial to observe, however, that the minimalist approach doesn't necessarily mean that the film is lacking in little flourishes or is restricted in style. There are plenty of shots that are complex and inventive in technique. Particularly some glorious tracking movements filmed some 30 years before Kubrick and 40 years before Scorsese. One reason this film ages so well is that it isn't really dated by anything except its lack of sound and colour. If this were coloured and dubbed (not that such a thing should ever happen), it'd be practically indistinguishable from modern day films. Nonetheless, the silence and beautiful black and white cinematography give this film an ethereal boost. Interestingly, there's also the option to watch this film completely silent, without even a score. Some think of this as a benefit, others prefer to watch it with music. Regardless of your choice, The Passion of Joan of Arc will no doubt touch you.
This film, nearing it's 90th birthday, is a timeless classic. A film in which ugliness and beauty, bad and good, death and life all come together to play. They fit alongside each other on the puzzle known as the human experience, presented here in all its glory and shame.