The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
British Film Institute, 15th March 2023

‘Jeane, I’m not sure what happiness means,
But I look in your eyes,
And I know.’
– The Smiths, Jeane

Teenage kicks

In 1431, a nineteen-year-old French military leader was tried and convicted for heresy in Rouen, Normandy. The court proceedings were held in the King of England’s military headquarters and capital in France – a trial that has arguably become the third most important in history – after the trials of Christ and Socrates.
The young woman who was examined, tried and condemned has been the central character of a whole literature of controversy. Shakespeare, Voltaire, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, and Thomas Paine have demonstrated her as a dynamic and challenging figure.
The English were stricken with fear at her success and when she was captured condemned her as a witch and apostate. Bernard Shaw hailed her as the first Nationalist and the first Protestant.
Jeanne d’Arc was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. The verdict was later nullified at her rehabilitation trial in 1456. Considered a French national heroine, she was declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.

Cinematic canon

The Passion of Joan of Arc (French: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc) is a 1928 French silent film based on the actual, verbatim, record of her trial. The film was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and stars Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan. It is widely regarded as a landmark of cinema.
For Falconetti, the performance was an ordeal. Legends from the set tell of Dreyer forcing her to kneel painfully on stone and then wipe all expression from her face – so that the viewer would read suppressed or inner pain. He filmed the same shots repeatedly, hoping that in the editing room he could find the precise nuance in her facial expression.

The film was an instant critical success and immediately called a masterpiece. It was banned in Britain for its portrayal of crude English soldiers who mock and torment Joan in scenes that mirror biblical accounts of Christ’s mocking at the hands of Roman soldiers.
The film and Falconetti’s performance have continued to be praised by critics. The legendary film critic of The New Yorker Pauline Kael wrote that Falconetti’s portrayal ‘may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.’ Critic Roger Ebert said that ‘You cannot know the history of film unless you know the face of Renée Maria Falconetti.’
Numerous respected publications (The Village Voice, Cahiers du cinema, and Sight & Sound) have consistently listed the film among the greatest of all time – normally in the top 10. Michael Mann called it a ‘human experience conveyed purely from the visualisation of the human face: no one else has composed and realised human beings quite like Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc’.
The film is arguably the most influential film of all time, alongside Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Falconetti’s performance was ranked 26th in Premiere magazine’s 100 Greatest Performances of All Time, the highest of any silent performance on the list.
Scenes from the film appear in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie (1962), in which the protagonist Nana sees the film at a cinema and weeps as she identifies with Joan. In Henry & June, Henry Miller is shown watching the last scenes of the film and in voice-over narrates a letter to Anaïs Nin comparing her to Joan and himself to the ‘mad monk’ character played by playwright Antonin Artaud.
It’s a thing of beauty.

James Neophytou

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