Joan of Arc, capture by the English, stands trial for heresy.
I don’t know what is wrong with me but I frequently end up breaking the seal on a director with a film for which that is unusual. Carl Theodor Dreyer is a director for who this is true of me. I already knew I was a fan when I bought this movie, sight unseen.
For most modern viewers, this is the first, and likely the only, Dreyer film they know and only because it was assigned in film school. Having already seen “Day of Wrath,” “Ordet,” and “Vampyr,” I knew I was in safe hands when I found myself buying a style of film which I rarely pop into my Blu-ray player. A silent, B&W, non-comedic, foreign film.
A magnificent film. The story itself so simple yet languorously explored in a series of long tracking shots, close ups, and dutch angled or lopsidedly framed scenes which seem to unfold a presence inside and hovering over Joan and the Church/Civil court proceedings. That presence or inescapable fullness is a marvel of filmmaking. How does one show the presence of what is unseen in a visual medium? Ironically the answer for Dreyer is often, to film nothing in particular and detach the camera from what the eye most wants to see.
For those not familiar with the story portrayed in the film, Joan is accused by the English of heresy and blasphemy, claiming that God has sent her an angel, commanding her to lead an army of the French to defeat the English. Of course to the English this seems impossible because that implies that God loves the French more than the English and so the question her, attempt to trick her, and even torture her before she is eventually executed by fire.
For a movie without sound, it is remarkably easy, through the performances, to interpret the roles of each of the court officials and priests as well as what degree to which they sympathize or abhor Joan. It is a testament to the development of cinephilic language to which Dreyer contributed that with the aid of only a sparse use of title cards, the audience is not only never lost but somehow transported into the bare court which Joan of Arc was forced to endure. I never felt like I was just watching something happen. I felt more like I was in the crowd, sitting next to a wicked priest condemning her, in her stead as she approached the instruments of torture, or even a member of the crowd, come to watch her death. That is quite a feat in a film where there is no sound to aid in that immersion.
That isn’t to say that it isn’t work on the viewer’s part. Intentionally, I think, Dreyer has directed a film in which you must be an active participant. It is easy to wander off in your mind or find yourself glancing down at your text messages. Just as Joan must actively submit herself to her death, we the viewer must make an effort to join her.
For this reason, I find this film to be an excellent companion during this particular time of the year: Lent. During a season in which we deny ourselves forms of comfort and go beyond mere attempts to ‘not commit sins’ and find knew levels of resolve, weakness, and faith, I am reminded of how easily I stumble, even as Joan does, and hope that I may too, endure whatever trials I will face.
It is a constant reminder that the faith which men may see as silly or weak is in fact, as Marcus Vinicius of “Quo Vadis” claims, a faith of courage.
Review Written By: