Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Dir. Carl Dreyer

I was raised a Christian, a Catholic no less, but I turned out OK (I guess that's a matter of opinion). I went through all the motions straight up through my Catechism where I was supposed to enter into the church as an adult. I chose not to. My ability to string along with the false piety (or worse: enviable exuberance) of my fellow young Christians failed me. I have one rather strong, distressing memory of my Catechism. We met each week on Sunday nights in small groups. We mostly read the Bible, discussed our faith and wasted time. On this night though our stand-in teacher posed a discriminating and frightful question. Making reference to the school shootings at Columbine High School and the rumor that one of the shooters had put a gun to a student's head and asked him if he believed in God and when he answered “Yes”, shot and killed the student, the teacher asked us what we would have done in that same scenario knowing a 'Yes' would end our life and a 'No' might save it, at the potential cost of our soul. As the pious and lazy youth swung their affirmation around the room the question came to me. I replied that I wouldn't; that I would want to live. I've wrangled with this situation for many years, trying to figure out why I answered the way I did. Was it because I actually don't believe in God? Was it because I am selfish? Was it because I wanted to make a scene? To this day I don't know, but years in the church have familiarized me with the psychological atrocities inflicted by those with piety and power. History books will tell of the Crusades and millions of deaths in the name of God, but, as Joan (Renee Jeanne Falconetti) in The Passion of Joan of Arc illustrates so clearly, it can be just as painful to live in the midst of a lie, as it is to die because of one.

The Passion of Joan of Arc chronicles the trial and subsequent execution of Joan of Arc. It is one of the most excruciatingly painful film experiences ever witnessed, as Joan undergoes significant amounts of physical and psychological torture by a body of theologians and cruel guardsmen. The theologians are outraged at Joan's conviction that she has been sent by God to expel the English from France. They are contemptuous of her because they are threatened by her dignity and the fact that she is a woman who claims to be doing God's work. Director Carl Dreyer captures the intensity of the event through studious use of close ups which highlight the exquisite (and sometimes revolting) facial expressions employed by his actors, especially Falconetti. Her performance stands apart from the rest of the film and in many respects the rest of the film world. Her passion is unbound and her sentiments so perfectly articulated that she does simply capture Joan of Arc, she is Joan of Arc. There are few performances as convincing and even fewer as powerful as Falconetti's, which would be her second and final appearance on the silver screen.

With The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer designed a complex and uncomfortable scenario. Apocryphal and hypocritical ardor is not uncommon, but it is difficult subject to deal with. Dreyer makes his theologians look ugly (extreme closeups of their faces reveal wrinkles and warts) and immature (they question why Joan is dressed in men's clothing), but they are in a position of power, so these outwardly degrading features do nothing in the favor of Joan's cause. This scenario still exists today and is a prominent reason as to why The Passion of Joan of Arc is still, and will likely always be, a truly timeless piece of cinema. Far too often, in the church, priests and worshipers of God will use God as the vessel in which to transmit their own messages on morality and faith, rather than the other way around (see: Pope Benedict's recent statements equating the dangers of homosexuality to those of deforestation). They believe themselves to be pious, but outwardly betray that dogma by using subversive tactics to influence the church-going community. Threats of excommunication, torture and death abound from the shouting mouths of the priests and monks in The Passion of Joan of Arc. And why? So that she might renounce her claim of being the daughter of God. All that hate in order to defeat one woman's selfless faith in God.

While Dreyer's religious epic is slightly more recondite than my own traumatic experiences in the church, the principle is much the same. The Christian faith was based on a solid foundation but the structure that has been built on top of that foundation is far too often ugly and useless; cruel to the point of savagery. His film captures the church in one of its most insightfully brutal moments, branding it with a stamp of malice. The final moments of the film are dreadfully powerful. The screen is full of images of fire and violence, the terrifying end to those who have failed to live by their own rhetoric. The film supplies a post script with a brief tribute to Joan of Arc, telling how the fire shielded Joan's soul as it soared into Heaven that day. Whether or not this is true is not for us to know. That is just for Joan.

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