The Passion of Joan of Arc

More than 100 years after the canonization of St. Joan of Arc, this film has never seemed more relevant.

Renée Jeanne Falconetti in ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’
Renée Jeanne Falconetti in ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (photo: Screenshot)

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.

She was canonized 100 years ago in 1920, and a year later the transcripts of her trial were published.

It was also at this time that one of the most promising young movie directors in Europe, Carl Dreyer, was invited to France to make a film. It was to be on any subject of his choosing. The Danish director afterward said that initially he was considering the lives of three potential French women about which he might make the film. The way he devised to choose which of these women’s lives would become the film was unusual. Ironically, it was by the drawing of matches that the Maid of Orleans emerged as his subject. For the next 18 months Dreyer set about researching the life of the peasant girl from Domrémy.

Crucial to the film was the casting of Joan. It is said that Dreyer scrutinized many actresses with a view to them playing the part but in none did he find the quality he sought. Frustrated, he walked the Paris streets whereupon he spied a theater where a light-hearted comedy was playing. Studying the actresses onstage, one caught his eye. She was beautiful, if heavily made-up, acting with comedic charm; nevertheless, there was something that drew him to her.

Dreyer returned the next day to the theater. After the performance, he went backstage. He found the actress; Renée Jeanne Falconetti was her name. He talked to her and, as he did so, he noticed something remarkable. Beneath the powder and paint, there seemed to exist an altogether different quality. He asked her to attend a screen test the next day. She did so. She was told to remove all her makeup. This she did. While the cameras rolled, Dreyer watched through the viewfinder, as before his eyes there came into focus the ‘Joan’ he had been searching for.

Later Dreyer was to write of Falconetti:

 There was something in her which could be brought out; something she could give, something … I could take. For behind the makeup, behind the pose and that ravishing modern appearance, there was … a soul behind that façade … but also a woman of suffering.

From the start of filming there was an intensity on the set. Soon, the shoot became a grueling experience for Falconetti. Too grueling, some contend, with the tyrannical director extracting a performance like no other from an all too fragile actress. When it came for her head to be shaved, as the saint’s was just before her burning, Falconetti suffered some sort of breakdown. What was even more telling was that, at that point, the whole film crew suffered an emotional collapse as well. Later, when audiences viewed the film, they were no longer watching a part being played within a drama. Instead, before their eyes, there appeared something truly remarkable — transcendent even.

From the first frames, The Passion of Joan of Arc has a particular magnetism. The much-lauded editing with its claustrophobic close-ups propelling the audience into a world unseen because in this film what is being shown to us — if one has eyes to see — is the inner life, present in a way that few filmmakers have achieved. The fact that the film is based on the testimony of history lends it an almost documentary feel. Even when seen today, it looks as if it could have been filmed yesterday, or, if it had been possible, in the 1430s. Few if any films have a similar impact, in rendering performance and audience timeless.

In 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc was released. Like the saint, the cinematic Joan was rejected. A new set of inquisitors demanded that the film “be consigned to the flames.” Mysteriously, that is what happened. Soon after its completion, the original film “disappeared” on account of fire. Painstakingly, Dreyer recreated it again from outtakes, but, shortly afterward, that negative, too, was obliterated in yet another fire. The film was censored and shunned, with the subsequent fires seemingly acting out the wishes of those new “persecutors” of the film as one of the greatest pieces of cinematic hagiography went up in smoke.

Thereafter, a few botched and butchered prints emerged from time to time; none were the version of the original print, however. And, consequently, a French version of the “second cut” surfacing in the 1950s was promptly and angrily dismissed and disowned by Dreyer.

Nevertheless, over the decades The Passion of Joan of Arc was still talked of in hushed tones by cinema’s cognoscenti. The film’s reputation grew even if this was based on stills and the screenings of truncated versions. When Dreyer died in 1968, one of his greatest masterpieces remained lost. But, just as the flames at Rouen could not destroy the 19-year-old mystic, so too the fires that destroyed the original movie could not prevent its subsequent reappearance, if in an unexpected way and in an unforeseen place.

In 1981 a janitor was cleaning out a closet in a mental institution in Oslo. Whilst doing so, he discovered three film canisters. They were passed to the Norwegian Film Institute where they lay unexamined for another three years. Finally, they were opened and found to contain an almost pristine, certified print of Dreyer's original 1928 cut of The Passion of Joan of Arc. To this day no one knows why or how these prints ended up at the hospital, for the film was never released in Norway. On account of the fact that her original accusers had branded Joan and her “voices” “madness,” the place of this “finding” appeared ironic.

Whereas the original 1928 release was raged against, from the 1980s onwards, throughout the film world, the restored version of The Passion of Joan of Arc became all the rage. From the ashes, a “celluloid saint” had arisen once more to claim her place in cinema history.

The actress at the film’s centre, Falconetti, was never to make another film. And yet, her 1928 screen performance now ranks as one of the greatest in film history — attested to again and again by being chosen to feature on critics’ lists, decade after decade. Maybe it was the film’s initial controversy that stunted the possibility of other film work for its star. Then again, given what she had helped create, perhaps artistically there was nothing left for her to say. As the film drifted off into obscurity in the decades that followed, Falconetti drifted too. When the Nazis marched into Paris, she fled France, ending up in South America. By 1946, impoverished and in ill health, she had made it as far as Buenos Aires. It was there, in still unexplained circumstances, her life was to end.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film about suffering in confinement, stripped of everything — even the sacraments. Ultimately, it is a cinematic portrait of abandonment to the will of God. Today, more than 100 years after the canonization of St. Joan of Arc, this film has never seemed more relevant.

This article originally appeared April 13, 2020, at the Register.