Although faith and religion have frequently inspired cinematic escapism, relatively few movies manage mass appeal while capturing the essence of Christianity: the individual’s relationship with God. Films in the “Christian entertainment” genre score limited audiences due to low budgets and well-intentioned yet sanctimonious storytelling. By contrast, populist entertainments based on biblical stories—such as Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments and his more famous 1956 remake—have become classics largely due to showmanship: the emphasis on huge sets, casts of thousands, and grandiose special effects.
Between these two extremes—the bravura of professional filmmaking and the piety of modern Christian entertainment—exists a happy balance: stories that demonstrate faith without preaching and present characters with whom both religious and secular viewers can sympathize.
Perhaps the consummate representation of this balance appeared in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Long heralded as a silent masterpiece for its experimental cinematography and the grueling lead performance by Renée Falconetti, this European film from 1928 also triumphs as spiritual art due to its moving portrait of an individual who valued faith above all else.
The Passion of Joan of Arc was unorthodox even in its day. Audiences in the 1920s were well-acquainted with motion pictures based on religious stories and the spectacular approach usually taken with them—e.g., DeMille’s original The Ten Commandments, with its groundbreaking depiction of Moses parting the Red Sea. Dreyer’s chosen subject—the devoutly religious peasant who led armies against the English in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)—led an adventurous life packed with heroism, which earlier filmmakers had likewise recreated for sensational effect. In an age when stories associated with faith were often equated with special effects and pageantry, the Catholic Joan of Arc (and the general focus on her military leadership) seemed fitting for the silver screen.
Dreyer, however, takes the unconventional, more poignant route in dramatizing Joan’s post-capture trial, wherein the Maid of Orleans suffered and then died for the one thing she loved more than her country. As stated in the picture’s opening text crawl, her true personage was not “in helmet and armor, but simple and human. … a young, deeply religious woman.”
The Passion of Joan of Arc opens with its heroine being led into a courtroom for questioning by Burgundian (English-allied French) clergymen. Foreign soldiers watch from the sidelines as the politically motivated judges commence an interrogation challenging the defendant’s Catholicism, beginning with her claims of having been tasked by Heaven to save France. (“You claim to have been sent by God?” “You said Saint Michael appeared to you. What did he look like?”) Attempts to wring anglophobic answers fail. (“So you think God hates the English?” To which Joan replies, “I know nothing of God’s love or hatred for the English…”)
As the trial progresses, the judges, determined to obtain either a signed letter of abjuration or grounds for a death sentence, use Joan’s devotion to the church against her. At times, they feign concern, but more often they shout accusations of misrepresenting faith. “You are no daughter of God! You are a servant of Satan!”
Joan of Arc’s actual trial lasted three months. The film, by contrast, distills the interrogations into a single day of almost unrelenting emotional torture. The church authorities occasionally threaten Joan with physical harm, but outside of a bloodletting performed on her arm (done to relieve a fever) and her eventual immolation at the stake, the attacks here remain fixated on her beliefs, though the shadow of her eventual execution looms large for the viewers. Again and again, the defendant pleads to hear Mass, only to be denied the service unless she confesses to having fought England at the devil’s instruction. When all else fails, she’s dragged to the execution yard for the first time. There, spectators cry for mercy while the judges issue words of pretend assurance: that abjuring will save her from eternal damnation.
Part of what distinguishes The Passion of Joan of Arc from other spiritual films is the harsh manner in which it depicts organized religion. Whereas the institution of the church is often thought of—and, in Christian media, depicted—as a venue of comfort and unity, Dreyer presents a prison-like labyrinth overrun with hatred and political agendas. Joan is repeatedly confined to cells rather than seated before the pew; she’s taunted by jailers who mock Christianity by dressing her in a makeshift crown of thorns. Clergymen, soft-spoken and humane in other pictures, are presented as manipulative hypocrites. (In a fine moment showcasing hypocrisy, the lead bishop assures Joan they want to help her, only to withdraw his hand when she reaches for it.) The two sincere allies Joan finds in the church—a monk and his disciple—cower on the sidelines, too timid to challenge the system.
What renders this silent gem a masterpiece about faith is not its depiction of the church—where a relationship with God is meant to be promoted—but the aforementioned emphasis on an individual’s commitment to God—where said relationship is forged. Our protagonist is a devout Catholic whose every action and thought is defined by her love for the Almighty. (Even what little we learn about her past is directly linked to her piety: her mother taught her the Lord’s Prayer.) Hence the tears wrung from her eyes when she’s accused of blasphemy and denied the comforting religious ceremonies she desires.
Falconetti lumbers through these scenes with increasingly pained expressions, and Dreyer shoots her—and much of the film—in constant close-up. Although traditional concepts of montage and the mixing of different camera angles had become commonplace by 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc utilizes taut focus on faces to emphasize the protagonist’s anguish and the aggression of her tormentors.
In the film’s most devastating section, Joan, pushed to the breaking point, signs a letter of abjuration, only to realize she’s betrayed God to avoid the executioner; quickly she retracts her statement, accepting death and martyrdom. The Maid of Orleans of this film is not a tomboyish action figure, but rather a three-dimensional person with a breaking point. One need not share her beliefs to recognize their importance to her, empathize with her pain, or share in her relief when she’s at last granted a Mass ceremony preceding death.
While its heroine firmly avows God’s existence, The Passion of Joan of Arc never depicts overt interactions between her and God or His angels; even Joan’s encounters with St. Michael are merely spoken about, and Joan gives only the most basic answers as to what she saw in her visions. Instead, Dreyer makes the brilliant decision to suggest the Almighty’s presence through symbolic imagery. When Joan’s confined in her cell, she spots—and is comforted by—a cross-shaped shadow on the floor (which one of the clergymen later steps on in another fine moment representing hypocrisy). In those fleeting instances when she’s at peace, the camera carefully frames her before crucifixes. Little moments like these believably convey a mortal’s relationship with God, because they imply a holy presence rather than confirm it. Only at drama’s end does the film offer anything resembling a theological stance: after Joan has perished at the stake, a text crawl describes the flames as protecting her soul during its ascent to Heaven.
When The Passion of Joan of Arc was first announced in 1927, French nationalistic voices questioned whether Carl Dreyer, a non-Catholic Dane, could authentically capture his heroine on screen. But through a combination of intelligent storytelling, innovative technique, and Falconetti’s achingly human performance, he delivered a superlative film examining faith in the most universally appealing manner. Devoid of sanctimonious speeches, ethereal special effects, and scenes of battle, The Passion of Joan of Arc is less about religion and more about someone who was deeply religious. Rather than plead with viewers to fear God, it merely asks that we feel for a person to whom faith was everything. Someone who suffered for her beliefs, and whose suffering and spiritual salvation are genuinely moving to watch.