The Passion of Joan of Arc – 1928 – dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer
My freshman Film History course’s screening of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc has to be one of the more interesting film screenings I’ve attended. There was the matter of the film itself, an experiment in stylistic minimalism that achieves emotional maximalism. There’s the matter of how it was presented, with the score on mute. My professor’s feelings about the film was that it was so intense on its own that any attempt to match the emotions with musical accompaniment would turn to cheese, and I’m inclined to agree with him (it’s surreal how a film consisting mostly of people talking would be so effective as a silent). What made the screening stand out in particular, however, was my classmate’s reactions afterwards.
Quite a few people did not like the movie. I can understand that; it’s such a weirdly constructed movie that if you don’t get sucked into its wavelength I can see people disliking it on stylistic grounds. What surprised me about their reactions was that they disliked the movie for its substance. The criticism that stood out among theirs (roughly paraphrased): “It’s not about anything, it’s just about who loved God more.”
How did they come to that conclusion? Has secular society become so repulsed at the idea of religious art that they can’t see any substance such works may contain beyond the fact that they’re religious? Of course, the quirky enclave of far left niches that is Bard College probably isn’t really any indicator of trends in society, but still I was confused how that conclusion was reached. We must not have been watching the same film, because the film I saw was about a lot of things.
It’s about a young woman facing torture and execution with dignity and the determination that she can still achieve great things even in death. It’s about the sexism she faces for defying traditional gender roles. It’s about the hypocrisy of the governmental and religious institutions which condemn her. It’s about the blurred line between conviction and insanity, and about how individual tragedies can inspire massive revolutions.
And yes, it’s also about loving God, but there’s no reason to diminish the depth and nuance of Dreyer’s take on that subject. Dreyer was both deeply Christian and firmly against organized religion, and that perspective heavily informed his filmmaking. His films are far more honest than the cynical images the phrase “Christian movie” tends to bring to mind. Even if you don’t like his faith, you got to respect it’s his own and not some pre-packaged church sermon.
Sometimes his specific form of faith I’ve found troubling. Maybe it’s me being Jewish and not particularly well-versed in New Testament material, but I found the magical twist ending to his film Ordet both baffling and theologically problematic. The message of the ending when applied to the context of the otherwise realistic world of the film read to me as essentially victim-blaming towards anyone in the real world facing similar suffering and not receiving such impossible miracles for their faith. Joan of Arc, being tethered to strict historical accuracy, presents a message I can accept easier. Personal faith doesn’t magically negate a bad situation, but it allows Joan to face the situation head-on and as a martyr become the catalyst for a positive situation. The suffering at hand isn’t diminished but accepted. In a reality where suffering is everywhere, this seems like a more positive form of belief to approach the world’s terrors with positivity.
The Passion of Joan of Arc approaches its multi-layered material, pardon the expression, passionately. Carl Dreyer directs with utmost conviction and Maria Falconetti completely disappears into her role as J’eanne (which is an absolute necessity for this film’s success, given half of it is just her in close-up with no make-up). I hope the film works for others better than it worked for my classmates. It worked for Jean Luc Godard, not a man of religious faith at all, who loved the film enough to pay direct homage to it in Vivre Sa Vie. I’d hope that means at least something more about its power than a few college students.