The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Movie Review

Joan of Arc poster

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Reformed (2017)

Movie Review

First Reformed poster

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that reminds you of why you love movies so much. Sometimes you forget because there is so much crap out there in commercial fare. First Reformed is just such a movie. Written and directed by Paul Schrader, it is a movie not to be missed.

First a little about Paul Schrader. He is now 71. When he was 24 and a film student he wrote a book, which proved to be very influential in the coming years, entitled, Transcendental Style in Film. He fell under the sway of esteemed film critic Pauline Kael and became a film critic himself. Two years later he was writing and directing films. He is best known for Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). He has 24 screen writing credits and 23 director credits. Even though he is known for a particular style he has never employed the transcendental style in any of his movies. Until now.

First Reformed is shot in transcendental style which Schrader first defined as a 24-year-old film student. What is transcendental style anyway? A style of filmmaking employed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Yasujiro Ozu. Transcendental style is an attempt to withhold certain cinematic elements the viewer might expect to see. Sometimes a static camera is employed, sometimes a kinetic camera. Slower cuts and fewer cuts. The camera might linger on a doorway a little while longer after a character leaves a scene, A static camera lingers on an empty room as characters enter then exit. The camera holds a little longer than expected. These devices are intended to make the viewer “lean’ in to the movie and to engage the viewer. It is a style that is intended to bring the viewer closer to the “other”, to the mystery.

It is called transcendental because there is a spiritual dimension that is sought after. This is achieved through style not content. Schrader later revealed in interviews that he realized what he was witnessing in some of the films he studied was an outgrowth of post WWII neorealism.

Schrader breaks from that style twice in First Reformed. The first time is a tender scene in which Toller and Mary lie on top of each other while they try to match their breathing patterns. Schrader asks himself, what would Tarkovsky do? Levitate! So, he has the couple mysteriously begin to levitate. The other time is the film’s final scene, which is I won’t describe here.

Schrader freely admits who his influencers were: “There is a little Tarkovsky in there. The credits are from Rossellini. The barbed wire is from Flannery O’Connor (I knew it!). That’s the secret of creativity. You have to steal around.” Also, it is pretty evident that Winter Light (1963), directed by Ingmar Bergman, was the blueprint for this film.

Ethan Hawke, in probably the best performance of his career, plays Reverend Ernest Toller, a character in spiritual crisis. He is pastor at the First Reformed Church which is a spin off of a mega-church called Abundant Life Ministries run by Reverend Joel Jeffers, played very effectively by Cedrick the Entertainer (Cedric Kyles) in an unusual casting choice.

Toller’s church is small and has few parishioners. The source of his pain is that as a military chaplain he encouraged his son to enlist in the army who was later killed in action in Iraq. His marriage did not survive his son’s death. His ministry at First Reformed is sort of a penance.

One morning after service a young woman approaches Toller and asks him to counsel her husband. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is with child. Her husband Michael is going through a spiritual crisis of his own. He is an environmental activist and is very depressed at the thought of bringing a child into the world that is undergoing the throes of devestating climate change. He wants Mary to have an abortion. During their counseling session Michael asks the question, “Will God Forgive us for destroying his creation?”

Toller is a drinking man and keeps a journal in his spare study. He continues to drink and slips further into despair. After his dealings with Michael he slowly starts to become radicalized. He moves closer to Mary but cannot overcome his despair. The movie progresses to a startling conclusion which leaves the viewer a little bit perplexed. It is an ambiguous ending and we don’t know for sure if what we are witnessing is reality. In any case this is a powerful film that one is not likely soon to forget.