As some of you may know, I celebrated my birthday on Saturday. I’m still getting used to the idea of being 28. (I can still remember when I thought that 21 was so old!) And, I have to admit, that I think I always figured that I would have all the questions of existence answered by the time I turned 28.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m hardly a lost soul. They say that 30 is the new 20 and, by that logic, I’m only 18 years old, which means that not only am I barely legal but I’m actually doing amazingly well for someone my age.
Still, as I start the 28th year of my often quirky life, it’s hard for me not to think about one of my personal heroines. St. Jeanne D’Arc never lived to be 28. She was burned at the stake for heresy when she was 19 years old. But, in her short life, she inspired and led a nation. When I was 17, I was busy dating and shoplifting. When she was 17, Jeanne was defeating the English at the Siege of Orleans.
So, you can see why, despite whatever else I may have accomplished so far in my life, it’s still difficult for me to feel that I haven’t quite lived up to Jeanne’s example.
With all this in mind, what better time, than my birthday, to share with you my favorite silent film, the 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc?
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the film tells the story of the capture, torture, and eventual execution of Jeanne D’Arc. Dreyer adapted the film directly from the original transcripts of Jeanne’s trial and he brings a truly surprising amount of intimacy to a story that is so famous that it often runs the risk of also feeling remote and detached from modern reality. As opposed to many silent films in which camera movement seems to be almost an afterthought, Dreyer skillfully used jarring angles and sweeping movement as a way to put us directly into Jeanne’s head. As we watch the film, we feel both her courage as she refuses to surrender to her tormentors and her fear as her story reaches its inevitable conclusion. This film transforms an iconic saint into a vulnerable but strong human being and, as a result, 85 years after it was first released, The Passion of Joan of Arc remains one of the most powerful films of all time.
Before one watches The Passion of Joan of Arc, there are three things worth noting:
1) One of Jeanne’s tormentors is played by the playwright Antonin Artaud. Artaud would later found the Theater of Cruelty, a theatrical movement that would later be cited as an influence by Italian director Lucio Fulci.
2) Dreyer specifically barred his cast from wearing makeup, which serves to emphasize both the natural beauty and the vulnerability of Jeanne. It also serves to emphasize the ugliness of those persecuting her. As a result, even as the film serves to transform Jeanne into an individual, it also establishes her as a symbol for all oppressed people while her memorably ugly persecutors perfectly symbolize the excess and corrupting influence of absolute power.
3) It has been said by that, in the title role, Maria Falconetti gives one of the best performances in the history of film. I certainly don’t disagree. Facing her persecutors with a mixture of fear and defiance, Falconetti gives an intensely emotional performance. You look at Falconetti’s Jeanne and you believe that yes, at the age of 19, she could have led a nation to victory. (Though, it should be noted, that Falconetti was actually 35 years old when she played Jeanne). Making Falconetti’s performance all the more poignant is the fact that she only made one other film and she would eventually end up committing suicide in 1948.
Without further ado, here is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan Of Arc.