Ranking: #4/111

Director: Carl Dreyer (Denmark)

Genre: Historical Drama

The Passion of Joan of Arc broke new ground in cinema by creating a purely psychological film, virtually bereft of action. Dreyer achieved this by developing a new lexicon of camera shots in which the close-up is predominant, upending the convention of film, from its inception, that the majority of shots should be long and medium shots. He also avoided using make-up for the actors, focusing on inner states of mind, not appearances.

“My idea of telling the story of Joan’s agony in close-ups hardly followed the rules of a ‘proper’ dramatic film at the time,” Dreyer has said of his most famous movie.

Film historians, Bordwell and Thompson, succinctly described the impact of The Passion of Joan of Arc: “This film relied on close-ups and tiny facial changes to create an intense religious drama” (Bordwell, D & Thompson, K, 1997. Film Art – An Introduction, p. 177). Film theoretician, James Monaco shows the link between technique and content in this masterpiece of silent, black-and-white cinema: “A film shot mainly in closeups…deprives us of setting and is therefore disorienting, claustrophobic.” (How to Read a Film – Movies, Media and Beyond, p. 221) Monaco is spot on – space in the film is deliberately confined in scope in order to focus on emotions and spirituality, not on externals. There are NO establishing shots – Dreyer wants to get inside his characters’ hearts and minds. In addition to the close-ups, there are a variety of interesting camera angles to help him tell his story.

The film, above all, is a drama of faces. Joan’s luminescent, suffering face contrasts with the stern and satirical faces of the jurists and theologians trying her (and trying to trick her, it should be said). Their coarseness is accentuated against the images of her gentle, but undeterred, dignity. Some of the images obtained through these relentless close-ups are the most memorable ever seen on the Big Screen.

We only get exterior shots at the end once her sentence has been passed and she must be burnt at the stake. And there’s an explosion of violence and action in this final sequence of the film, including a riot, as if the bottled-up anger contained during the formalities of the court case has been unleashed.

Stark interiors highlight her spiritual struggle and heighten the claustrophobia of this masterpiece of psychological realism.

Dreyer’s cinematic minimalism in the service of psychological realism influenced many directors, including Antonioni and Bergman. His fidelity to truth, including historical and spiritual truth, influenced directors like Bresson and Tarkovsky. As a former newspaper correspondent and theatre critic, he based his screenplay journalistically on the actual transcripts of the trial, following the questions of the judges and Joan’s answers, just as Bresson would do thirty-four years later in his The Trial of Joan of Arc. Dreyer presents the trail is a “witch hunt” or show trial, in which there is a conspiracy to find the accused guilty no matter what. They are mostly aggressive, politically motivated, prosecutors, not honest jurists. 

In her one and only appearance in movies, Renee Maria Falconetti, gave a performance of historic proportions, one of the greatest ever given by an actress. She IS Joan. She is mocked, persecuted and tortured in the torture chamber. At one point, blood is extracted to reduce her fever. It is as if she is undergoing a form of juristic rape. This long and painful character assassination is followed by an extreme, unjust sentence. It has been an assault against her mind, her senses, her sense of self and even against her “naïve” faith. We are witnessing a martyrdom and Dreyer’s cinematic minimalism is the appropriate style for achieving a respectful, restrained and dignified portrait of Joan. He affords to his main character the fair and compassionate treatment the real Joan of Arc was denied.