A ‘Passion’ for the Ages: A Religious Masterpiece Comes to Blu-Ray

Now 90 years old, The Passion of Joan of Arc captures like few other films what it means to suffer with Christ. A Vatican film list honoree, it is new on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

 This scene with Renée Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc evokes Christ’s passion.
This scene with Renée Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc evokes Christ’s passion. (photo: Société Générale des Films)

About halfway through Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a sequence in which Joan, during a brief respite from her ecclesiastical inquisitors, is mocked and tormented by a trio of English soldiers, who place a straw crown on her head and an arrow in her hand as a mock scepter while ridiculing her claim to be God’s daughter.

Not only does the scene obviously echo the mockery of the Son of God, with his crown of thorns and the reed scepter, the medium close-up of the crowned Joan visually evokes a key shot from an early French Jesus film: the Ecce Homo close-up in the Pathé The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902/05), directed by Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nonguet. (While the shot in the Pathé film is a rare close-up, Dreyer’s shot is notable for the opposite reason; it is a rare sustained shot of Joan that pulls back for more than her face and the tops of her shoulders.)

This visual echo is one of the most explicit signs that Dreyer intends Joan’s trial and execution to be seen, in keeping with his title, in light of the passion of Jesus. (This motif is carried to the film’s very last shot, with Joan’s stake in the foreground and a cross on a chapel dome in the background.) At the same time, Dreyer emphasizes his subject’s non-divine frailty: Joan’s crown is braided straw rather than thorns, and, while Christ is flogged and beaten with rods, Joan’s tormenters tickle her ear with a straw.)

I can think of films with religious themes that are more theologically profound than The Passion of Joan of Arc, but none more evocative of what it means to share the sufferings of Christ. The film is more than a dramatization, more than a biopic, more than a documentary: It is a spiritual portrait, almost a mystical portrait, of a Christlike soul in her hour of trial.

The experience of watching The Passion of Joan of Arc brings me closer to Good Friday than any filmed depiction of the actual trials and sufferings of Christ I have seen. In writing about this film, more than most films, I find myself trying to express something of the experience of watching the film, as much as the film itself. The viewer’s attention is directed inward, in a contemplative, chastened way, like praying the Stations of the Cross or the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.

This is not just because of the subject matter, but because of the singular visual approach uniquely identified with this film. A transcript of the dialogue, which condenses the many sessions of Joan’s trial into what appears to be a single day, would be deceptively easy to follow. Visually, though, Dreyer uses a deliberately disorienting style at odds with expected cinematic rules — a little like the notion of reverse perspective in Byzantine iconography.

Byzantine perspective seems to be something of a myth (for one thing, the rules of perspective weren’t worked out until the Italian Renaissance). But Dreyer’s contravention of established principles of cinematic storytelling was deliberate.

Images of faces, shot in medium to extreme close-up, dominate the film. Sometimes we see only part of a face — a furrowed brow and squinting eyes, or furiously working lips verbally assaulting a helpless ear.

The images are shot, moreover, from every conceivable angle, from overhead and behind the shoulder to worm’s-eye views filmed from trenches cut in the ground. The subjects are also framed in every conceivable way, sometimes centered but also relegated to the margins of the shot, with empty, neutral space filling the background.

Finally, and most importantly, one shot follows another with no obvious connection between them. Canonical cinematic principles such as eyeline matches between two characters talking to one another, or visual reference points carried from one shot to another, are almost never used.

All of this makes it difficult to get one’s bearings. The constant close-ups create a fearful intimacy overwhelming the viewer’s defenses. Without the conventions of continuity, cinematic time becomes unreal; the trial seems to take place within a single day, but it could also be the events of many days blurring together. One is left to contemplate rather than anticipate, to be caught up in the stream of images rather than following carefully from a distance.

Despite the extreme artifice of Dreyer’s storytelling, the overwhelming impression the film creates is of persuasiveness, of truthfulness. The film is meant to feel, not like a stage or screen drama, but like “watching reality through a keyhole,” in Dreyer’s phrase.

To achieve this, Dreyer didn’t simply re-enact scenes from Joan’s trials; he virtually recreated the trial. This effort began with the recreation, at fantastic expense, of Rouen Castle in Normandy, where Joan was tried. Complete with towers, a courtyard, houses, chapels, and a working drawbridge, all enclosed by a medieval wall, it was a virtual medieval village in miniature, inspired by medieval manuscripts and illustrations.

Yet Dreyer (to the fury of his backers) had little interest in his stupendous set for its own sake, and not much of it is ever seen onscreen. What Dreyer cared about was the faces of his actors; he wanted them to become medievals in a medieval world, living and breathing Joan’s trial. The set was all about creating the mood, a sense of a world larger than what is seen onscreen.

Above all, Dreyer cared about the face of Renée Jeanne Falconetti (sometimes credited as Maria Falconetti), whose haunting embodiment as the Maid of Orleans has widely been celebrated as the greatest performance ever filmed.

It is a haunting face because it is a haunted face, overshadowed by visions, by fear, by death. Crushing exhaustion, visionary ecstasy, peasant cunning and unconcealed terror wash over her features, variously overwhelming in intensity or almost vanishingly subtle. It is unlike any prior performance, and few performances after.

The 1927 shoot proceeded chronologically rather than according to production convenience, and lasted six months, comparable to the time frame of the real trials. Because of the chronological production schedule, actors playing monastics were forced to maintain their tonsures (a monastic hairstyle involving shaving the crown of the head) throughout, instead of simply shooting all their scenes in a week and then growing their hair back.

Verbal exchanges between Joan and her interlocutors were taken directly from the historical records of her trials, and the costumes and props, based on 14th-century paintings, are also authentic.

Makeup, normally de rigueur for black-and-white film, was not used; instead, Dreyer relied on a new panchromatic filmstock sensitive to a greater range of the visible spectrum than normal black-and-white film, capturing every pore and wrinkle and nuance of skin texture with pitiless high contrast and clarity. In some shots the high-contrast texture of skin or cloth evokes finely etched or engraved medieval printmaking.

Joan’s ecclesiastical judges, looming ominously and glaring spitefully, have been compared to the grotesques of Hieronymus Bosch, though I’m more reminded of Leonardo da Vinci’s grotesques, which are more disturbing than horrible.

Joan’s judges try their hardest to crush her, but their occasional shows of concern are not wholly feigned, as becomes clear in the end from their conflicted, sorrowful reactions to the inevitability of her fate. From their own self-interested perspective, their efforts to break her down were really aimed at saving her, or at least sparing themselves from being forced to condemn her.

As execution looms, a carnival atmosphere prevails, with contortionists, acrobats and performers of various kinds taking advantage of the assembled crowd, echoing the different sort of circus that is Joan’s trial. Joan’s attention, though, is on a skull unearthed by a gravedigger: both a dreadful memento mori and a reminder of Golgotha (“Place of the Skull”). 

The denouement, a chaotically filmed riot violently suppressed by the English soldiers, is not historical. Cinematically inspired by the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, it highlights the film’s theme of schism between institutional power and popular piety or personal spirituality. 

This theme is implied in the whole premise of the trial: Joan, an illiterate peasant girl, claims to be guided by an authority higher than her judges — by voices from heaven; by St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret — and all the prelates and theologians of the Church cannot gainsay her. 

To Joan’s judges, her story is an affront to their hierarchical dignity; it is certainly an embarrassment to their interests. Dreyer symbolically depicts this conflict in a sequence in which, briefly left to her own devices, Joan weaves the crown that the soldiers will use to mock her and looks with devotion on a cross formed by chance on the floor by the shadow of a window grille. Later one of her judges, attempting to win her confidence through deception, walks across the floor, blocking the light so that the cross vanishes.

Still, the schism between institutional authority and private spirituality is never absolute. On the one hand, the judges may dispute Joan’s story, but they cannot deny the phenomenon of private revelation nor exclude dogmatically the possibility that Joan may be telling the truth. On the other hand, for Joan the climax of the story is when she is finally able to make her confession to a sympathetic priest and receive Christ in the Blessed Sacrament from his hands.

Despite Dreyer’s attention to history, the negative portrayal of most of the churchmen was controversial in 1928, especially as Dreyer was not Catholic. To the filmmaker’s outrage, whole scenes were censored before its debut in Paris, apparently at the behest of Cardinal Louis-Ernest Dubois, the archbishop of Paris, as well as government censors. (On the other hand, Cardinal Dubois reportedly pronounced The Passion of Joan of Arc the best film of 1928.) It was also banned in England over the thuggish behavior of the English soldiers who mock Joan. It is often said that the film was a critical success but a box-office flop, but the public never really saw Dreyer’s film. 

Although the dialogue is adapted directly from the trial records, it is not always transparent and occasionally confusing. Two possibly puzzling topics to which the judges return over and over are Joan’s insistence on wearing men’s clothing and whether she will say the Paternoster or Our Father.

Joan’s use of male attire remains a topic of historical debate today. What is clear is that she ascribed it to the will of God communicated through her heavenly voices, and certainly on the battlefield it was necessary to her military role. In addition, other evidence indicates that during her imprisonment she was in danger of rape attempts by her guards, from which male attire provided some defense.

Saying the Paternoster, for Joan’s judges, was a litmus test to determine whether she was possessed. Dreyer links her early refusal to say it to overwhelming emotion at the thought of her mother, who first taught her the prayer. The trial records reveal, though, that Joan stated her willingness to say the Our Father only to a priest in the sacrament of confession, which, along with the Mass, was being withheld from her in an effort to coerce her compliance.

Despite a few such ambiguities, for the most part Joan’s best lines are faithfully reproduced, from her disarming replies to questions about St. Michael’s appearance to her great rejoinder to the doctrinally freighted question about whether she is in the state of grace: “If I am, may God keep me there! If I am not, may God grant it to me!”

In this film Joan again stands accused, and her long silences and simple answers continue to frustrate and confound.

Notes on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray

The new Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of The Passion of Joan of Arc features a new high-definition (2K) digital restoration of the film, with newly translated subtitles and different viewing options. Like other releases in recent decades, the version of the film is from Dreyer’s original cut, miraculously preserved in an almost pristine print discovered in 1981 in a janitor’s closet in a mental institution in Norway.)

The film can be viewed at 24 or 20 frames per second, with a number of score options or in silence. (Among new bonus features is an informative video essay, running about 12 minutes, on the debate about the best frame rate.)

The best viewing experience, in my opinion, is 24 frames per second, either with Richard Einhorn’s transcendent oratorio Voices of Light or in silence.

A second score for the 24-frame version, from the English musicians Will Gregory of the electronic music duo Goldfrapp and Adrian Utley of the band Portishead, blends contemporary and medieval inspiration, with a choir, brass, percussion, harp, and guitar ensemble. A third score, composed and performed by pianist Mie Yanashita, is available for the 20-frame version. (The alternate scores are each interesting, but neither, for me, matches the film’s intensity and mood as does Einhorn’s.)

Other bonus features include new interviews with Einhorn (about 11 minutes, illuminating) and with Gregory and Utley (about 15 minutes) on their scores. There is also a 1999 audio commentary by the film historian and Dreyer expert Casper Tybjerg and a short interview with the daughter and biographer of Joan actress Renée Falconetti, conducted by Einhorn (about 8 minutes).

Caveat Spectator: Graphic depiction of execution by burning at the stake; a violent riot scene; intense, prolonged distress and anguish; threatened torture; medicinal bloodletting. Might be okay for older kids.


Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ aired on EWTN on Good Friday 2023.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ 2023

This year’s meditations by Father Raymond J. de Souza honored the late Cardinal George Pell, including some of his meditations from his ‘Prison Journal.’