The Passion of Joan of Arc ★★★★½

I am happy to report that every inkling of The Passion of Joan of Arc's reputation as a masterpiece stands. It's a technically marvelous, theologically rich, impassioned stance on religion and its counterpart hypocrisy.

Among other things, one of the most impressive aspects of The Passion of Joan of Arc is the direction by Carl Dreyer. Using minimalist sets and a small cast, mostly consisting of just Joan and all her oppressive judges, he manages to craft a fairly captivating tale of sacrifice and deceit. Every camera movement and angle is designed for optimal comfort or discomfort, either isolating the audience or drawing them in. Dreyer has a real distinction for scale, as is evidenced in his use of close-ups versus group shots, which serve either to empower Joan as a singular figure or dwarf her against the immensity of her prosecutors. Take the final scene of Joan being burned at the stake. There are distinctions Dreyer makes between framing her with her titles (idolator, heretic, et al) above her head or not, thereby providing ironic context to how we are supposed to feel about her martyrdom.

This film is also surprisingly theologically complex. It would be easy enough to present Joan of Arc as a sole saint against a mob of evil, Satanic priests, but Dreyer's film eschews such simplicity. He presents Joan as beaten through her tireless ideals, and at such a young age, perhaps unreliable. Her actions and martyrdom are certainly commendable, but to what extent? Dreyer asks us to decide for ourselves. Is such stubbornness necessary to achieve enlightenment? I also admire the presentation of the court. For the most part, they are scum, but also so deeply religious their hatred blinds them. Dreyer's close up comes in handy here, when we can see the regret on the faces of individual clergymen afraid to stand up against their superiors. Not everything is black and white in religion, and that's something this film clearly understands.

Maria Falconetti is astonishing. Of course I had seen certain images and scenes of her before; it's nearly impossible to escape the iconic symbol of her performance. However, what she does in this film transcends anything I would have expected from a silent film actress. Every iota of emotion is so expertly painted onto her face, which often serves as a blank canvas upon which the audience can thrust their emotions. She deals in character with nuance and grace, but also with great vulnerability and expression. It's hard to believe one person can produce so many tears.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a moving, thorough movie. I watched it without sound, which may have helped enhance my appreciation of it; without audio, it can feel occasionally dull. There is at least one major scene which feels geographically incomprehensible, Dreyer rejecting the 180 rule in favor of confusion regarding blocking and location. Otherwise, I adored this film not only as a timepiece but as a truly resonant piece of art, complex and rousing, and with a final scene that catapults everything we have experienced in the past hour into something cathartic.

B+