The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928), or Passion Plays And Silent Screams (Part 3)

9 05 2009

As I said before, Maria Falconetti is wonderful as the eponymous Joan, but what makes her so special? What did she do differently from so many other able silent film actors? She puts it all in the character. Every fiber of her IS Joan of Arc. I do not see an actress who lived comfortably in the Italian hill country. I see a tortured spirit, a woman who suffered needlessly and often. When the guard in the clip above takes her ring, she knows there is nothing she can do, and without being able to raise a hand, she wounds us with her facial expressions. The long takes only accentuate this, not to mention the lack of make-up on any of the actors to bring the end of the Hundred Years War to dirty, torch-lit life.

Does Joan want to hurt these people who question and assault her? Does she scorn them, despite the outward cries of Godliness? Does she obfuscate the answers to their queries out of pride and defiance, or is she truly “touched” by the hand of God? Falconetti’s face is an enigma, a truly beguiling portrait whose expressions will always make us wonder. I would say that perhaps she put something of a quiet strength to Joan that arises from a more natural source. In subtle ways, I believe Falconetti brought a more human feel to the long-suffering French soldier than people would give her credit for. While it is open to interpretation, I would recommend watching the interrogation scenes a second time through. She is not the picturesque angel clad in flesh and bone that most people associate with this film. I almost found her to have a sense of humor, as she brushed off certain questions with ease, as if she had better things to do than rot in a jail cell.

But Falconetti and Dreyer unwittingly create something here that must be commented on. It is the madness of faith. Joan of Arc was not just any old victim; she is a saint, for crying out loud! And Falconetti’s recreation of Joan’s religious fervor colors the movie eight different shades of deranged. Her wide, spaced-out eyes beam with what she thinks must be heavenly effulgence, but what appears for the audience to be the onset of a psychotic episode. She looks immensely disturbed, and Dreyer’s artistic decision to have the film side completely with Joan puts The Passion of Joan of Arc in a strange position. It is a religious movie about a religious icon created by a religious director that depicts faith in a terrifying and unstable light. What does it say about Christianity that a saint, one of the holiest honors placed upon a human being, looks like she just escaped from Bellvue and all but froths at the mouth when confronted with the concept of going to Heaven? What does it say about religion when behavior like this is condoned and accepted as having “great faith”? Whatever the answers to these questions may be for you, I fully back a movie that, even unknowingly, creates a case against faith.

Tomorrow will be the conclusion of my discussion of this fine movie, which will include my take on director Carl Dreyer and this film’s contributions to cinema. See you then!

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