La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (original title) is a silent film that was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. I was motivated to watch this film as it was referenced by Paul Schrader as an example of transcendental film style in his book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and in recent interviews he has given about his latest film, First Reformed (2017). I wanted to see first-hand what this style of film looked like.
In 1431, Jeanne d’Arc was placed on trial on charges of heresy. The church attempted to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions. They tried various forms of coercion and threatened her with torture. Finally, in a moment of weakness, she confesses, but later in her jail cell she recants her confession and is then burned at the stake as a witch.
There is transcendence here as Jeanne is in touch with God or rather He her. She has been sent on a mission by God to run the British out of France. Jeanne hears the voice of God talking to her but this not believed by the clergy who accuse her heresy.
Jeanne d’Arc was a peasant girl living in medieval France who believed that God had chosen her to lead France to a victory in its long running (100 years) war with England. She convinced Prince Charles, who was later to be crowned King Charles of France, to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orleans where she won a decisive victory over the British. She was later captured by British forces and tried for witchcraft and heresy and subsequently sentenced to be burned at the stake. She was 19. From that moment on she was known as the Maid of Orleans. Jeanne d’Arc was canonized as a saint in 1920. In all there were 70 charges lodged against Jeanne for witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man. She was burned for dressing like a man, the most unpardonable sin of all, which according to the Bible was an abomination to the Lord.
The film is considered to be a masterpiece of the cinema and I readily agree. It is shot largely in close-ups in crisp black and white against stark gray background. It is silent but the version I saw was accompanied by a musical score that was created for the movie in 1994 called Voices of Light composed by Richard Einhorn. It is an astonishing piece of work and is very effective in driving the action and setting the mood. I would, however, like to watch the movie sometime in silence as that is the way Dreyer intended it to be seen.
The story is mainly told through the range of expressions on the faces of the characters as Jeanne suffers the agony of the trial. The camera work consists of low angle shots and high contrast lighting which made the faces priests and other interrogators look all the more grotesque. Jeanne, in contrast, was shot in soft even lighting. The character of Jeanne was played by Renee Jeanne Falconetti. Roger Ebert said in his review, “You cannot know the history of silent films unless you know the face of Renee Jeanne Falconetti.”
Based on the actual record of the trial of Jeanne d’Arc the entire film was shot in continuity. It depicts the suffering of Jeanne as she is tormented, humiliated and finally burned alive at the stake. This is the Passion of Jeanne which mirrors the passion of the Christ. Jeanne screams out in agony at the end of the film, “Jesus!”
Dryer presents this film as the triumph of the human spirit over the trials and tribulations of life experience. He strives for new forms of expressionism as he focuses on the visual expressions of the human face.
My original motivation, as I stated earlier, was to view this film from an academic point of view in order to learn more about transcendental style, but I came away more enriched for having had the experience.