Ranking: #45/111

Director: Robert Bresson (France)

Genre: Historical Drama

Robert Bresson used his minimalist style of filming to great effect in recreating the trail of Joan of Arc with a starkness not seen since Carl Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece of the silent cinema era, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Paradoxically, the restraint shown by both directors in the presentation of the process of the trial, coupled with their overall sombre tone, doesn’t diminish the cumulative emotional impact of witnessing the recreation of Joan of Arc’s excruciating last days. In both films, the viewers are like observers helpless to reverse the course of history as she undergoes her spiritual crisis and political martyrdom.

The Trial of Joan of Arc begins with a brilliant opening scene, as church bells ring out and Bresson uses an unusual shot of the robe of Joan of Arc’s mother, taken from a low camera angle, to convey the message that the film is about Joan as a person, not just a heroine of history. Then there’s an ominous roll of drums, with a harsh hitting of the drum. Always austere in the presentation of his material, Bresson uses sounds just as sparingly as he does his shots. And there is no music in the film, just natural sounds. Minimalism is the name of the game with Bresson.

The opening makes it clear that the young woman on trial, who, at only 19 years old, is little more than a teenager, is in grave trouble. She’s been in prison for several months, still able to maintain her dignity despite her ordeal.

Bresson presents her as being on trial in three ways. Firstly, she faces ecclesiastical charges, including heresy and witchcraft. Secondly, she is being tested to the full as a woman who is accused of cross-dressing as a man. While she is in prison, she is spied upon and even molested. In addition, she is subjected to a physical examination to confirm her virginity. All of this is a great humiliation to the young woman. And, thirdly, Joan is spiritually tested, for she has to counteract the constant attacks, during cross examination, on the sincerity of her faith.

In sum, the trial is an inquisition which tests every fibre of her being: body, mind and soul. With subtlety and sensitivity, the director builds up this complex portrait of a woman under attack from all directions.

Based on the surviving records of her trial, and on her actual words there, the film covers the final days of her life when she’s interrogated in a brutal political show trial, before being sentenced to death and then executed.

The style is low-key throughout, with a staccato pace to the dialogue, to emphasise the inhumane, cold-hearted way in which the English authorities treated her. In sober fashion, Florence Delay conveys the dignity, strength and simple, child-like faith of Joan. Most of all, though, she portrays the quality of this heroine’s innocence, an ingredient vital for the film’s credibility and persuasiveness.  She is elegant and subtle, rather than a simple peasant girl. She comes across as a pure person.

Bresson balances the aspects of her character very well, now showing her as a spiritual saint-in-the-making, then showing her as a vulnerable woman ashamed of the way she’s been molested, as well as hurt that her motive for cross-dressing as a man has been misinterpreted. Being around men constantly as a soldier, she felt it was appropriate to be dressed as one of them. She tearfully explains that she did all this to protect her modesty and her chastity as a woman.

Almost buckling under the pressure of the multi-pronged attacks on her, Joan signs a retraction, in order to get her sentence commuted to life in prison, provided, that is, that she resumes wearing women’s clothing.

Four days later, however, she claims that she has heard her voices from heaven again, reaffirming her calling to be faithful to God. She is then declared a relapsed heretic and her death sentence is brought back into force.

The black-and-white cinematography works well for this courtroom drama, as it did in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, reinforcing the film’s dark, sombre tone. Through cinematic minimalism, Bresson constantly shifts the attention from exterior to interior, inviting the audience to enter into Joan’s psyche, to empathise with her, to participate in her painful dilemma. His film is a journey of psychological discovery about who Joan of Arc really was.

In a fairly taut narrative, short scenes follow in quick succession, helping to create the impression that the final outcome is a foregone conclusion. It is, after all, a show trial. The extensive use of close-ups and medium shots – with not a single long shot being deployed – adds to the spiritual claustrophobia of the inquisition.

While Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc) is a forensic analysis of the famous show trial, the film is, at the same time, a living portrait of a great historical figure.