The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Physical pain, or a loss of faith, which is the more terrifying possibility?

A torture victim faces both. For a Muslim at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, it’s not only about water boarding or the isolation cell. It’s about American soldiers desecrating the Koran or trying to make you look at porn.

The American torturers at Guantanamo Bay have no ecclesiastical authority over their victims. The heroine of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, usually considered one of the greatest films ever made, is in a much more desperate straight. Played by the 35 year old Renée Jeanne Falconetti, Joan is the pious 19-year-old who helped lead a French nationalist uprising against the English occupation. Abandoned by Charles VII, the man she helped crown king, she is now under the power of the pro-English bishop Pierre Cauchon.

Let’s put aside for the moment the idea that nationalism was an anachronism in the 15th Century, that the cult of  Joan of Arc was created by royalists in the aftermath of the French Revolution to give the French a sense of national identity that did not come from Napoleon or the Jacobins. There is no debate about whether or not Joan was a pious Catholic. Even a Quisling Bishop like Cauchon would have had a tremendous authority in the eyes of a young French peasant girl, the power not only to torture her, but to deny her mass or confession, to excommunicate her, to cast her out of the Catholic Church. To look at Falconetti’s expressive features as she undergoes interrogation, is shown the instruments of her torture, and, finally, taken to be burned at the stake, is to ask a question.

What is she more afraid of?  Burning at the stake? Or hell?  What lies at the end of all that pain? Eternal life? Or eternal damnation?

For Carl Theodor Dreyer, the answer is clear. Joan is a saint, not a heretic. The last 15 minutes of The Passion of Joan of Arc are both excruciating and inspiring. Joan is tied to the state and burned. But, before she loses consciousness, she looks up at the sky to see a flock of white birds, her soul ascending to heaven. As her body is consumed by the flames, the people riot. They are repressed by soldiers, who wield maces like the Chicago Police wielded billy clubs in 1968. Dreyer’s camera angles are dramatic and innovative. We see the event from above, then the scene is flipped, and we experience a sense of vertigo, a sense of chaos. The world is becoming undone. The apocalypse is here. The bishop and the ecclesiastical authorities, grotesque, leering old men, are revealed to have been agents of Satan. Had Joan been answering the call of God? Yes. A thousand times yes. Joan dies in anguish, unsure of whether or not she was in a state of grace. She was.

The flames protected her soul as it ascended to heaven, the final title card tells us. That night she would be with Christ in Paradise. Eli Eli lama sabachthani? God had not forsaken her.

God would forsake Renée Jeanne Falconetti. The French stage actress, who had suffered from mental illness for most of her life, finally surrendered to her demons, and committed suicide in 1946. She was 54. There are some biographers who argue that the desperate emotions she manged to express during the 88 minutes of the Passion of Joan of Arc came from abuse, that Dryer drove her so hard she came close to a nervous breakdown. But, after watching the film, I would disagree. Like Bergmann’s Persona, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film that stands or falls on the strength of one woman’s face. Falconetti expresses despair, but it doesn’t stop there. There’s a depth, a sanity in her eyes, a range of human experience that sets her apart from her inquisitors, who are mostly one note caricatures of grotesque vanity, of the love of power. She is fully human. They are representative of types. Renée Jeanne Falconetti lost the battle with mental illness. But in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, she wins the war against a cruel, unjust ecclesiastical authority, against lawyers, priests and bishops who serve their lust for power, not God.

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