We should dispense with some history before I jump in here, even though there is vanishingly little chance my readers will be unfamiliar with the story of Joan of Arc.
But just in case – Joan was a 15th– Century French peasant girl living in regions then occupied by England. At the age of 13, she started hearing the “voices” of Saints Margaret, Catherine, and Michael, urging her to take up arms and save France from the English. We will set aside the question of the truth of her visions – whether we believe them or not, it’s a fact that many of her contemporaries did. But Joan’s youth, illiteracy, and gender were also strikes against her; she nevertheless managed to locate Charles II (the heir to the French throne), convince him to mount an attack on the English occupiers, and even lead armies into battle herself, in two successful campaigns which ultimately saw Charles II crowned in the city of Reims.
But Joan wanted to keep going, and was captured by the English during an attack on Paris. There she was turned over to the Parisian church leaders, who brought her to trial – convicting her not of treason, but of heresy. She was burned at the stake in 1431. Almost immediately after, however, public sentiment turned to Joan’s case, and within 25 years Charles II was able to convince the Pope to grant Joan a posthumous annulment of the verdict. She was canonized a Saint in 1920.
Joan’s canonization, and the dramatic details of her story, put Joan on the map in the 1920s. Readers may be familiar with other movies about Joan, or with the play by George Bernard Shaw. Most other productions focused on the whole of Joan’s life, however, or with the military campaign which brought her into the public eye. The Passion of Joan of Arc instead focuses solely on her trial and execution, and is based almost entirely on the actual court transcripts and records from her interrogation. We don’t get any battle scenes with Joan brandishing a sword – we only get the crossfire of Joan and her interrogators. Instead of lavish scenes with the French court or a poignant staging of the young Joan hearing her voices, all we see is the spare courtroom in Paris, and the dirty plaza where she is burned.
Actually, half the time we don’t even see that – filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer shoots the film almost entirely as a series of intercut close-ups on the character’s faces as they speak. So most of the film is a parade of angry-looking men debating with a visibly frightened, but resolute, young woman. Dreyer does stack the deck a bit with the casting – most of the churchmen are older, and the mean-looking kind of old to boot (although one had hair that reminded me a bit too much of the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert).
Joan was an unknown vaudevillian actress named Renee Falconetti, who was unconventionally beautiful, but remarkably expressive. Two of the few monks present who sympathize with Joan are also closer to her age, and a bit more conventionally handsome. But Falconetti’s performance lays Joan’s emotional turmoil bare on her face.
So no, you don’t get any battle scenes. But you get Joan’s story stripped down to its essentials, which gives this film immense power. Whatever you may think of Joan from a religious or historic perspective, this film shows us that on a human level, here was an uneducated teenager facing off in a court of religious law against several older and more educated men, and that she not only had the strength to stand up to them, she also stuck to her principles despite the knowledge that doing so would bring her certain death. Even if this wasn’t about Joan, that is an astonishingly powerful story.
A historical footnote – some strange rumors circulated in France while Dreyer was making the film, including the idea that Lillian Gish was set to play Joan (!). The Archbishop of Paris therefore took a dim view of the film, and demanded a pre-screening to make some cuts before the film could be screened in France. Dreyer objected, but was powerless. A year later, a fire destroyed the master copy of the film, then in storage in Berlin; Dreyer tried to re-cut a backup using outtakes and some surviving prints, but that negative was also destroyed. Then in 1981, a janitor at a Norwegian mental institution discovered a copy of Dreyer’s original cut, inclusive of the bits censored by the Archbishop, in a broom closet. There is no clear explanation as to what the film was doing in such an astonishingly weird place – film historians’ best guesses are that the institution’s 1928 director may have requested a copy, since he was also a historian. But since this is a film about a saint, I’m inclined to believe there’s a bit of a miracle at work.