Still the Best and Truest Joan

The eyes are the window of the soul,” an Italian Renaissance philosopher once wrote. Silent movies are an art form that demonstrates the truth of this maxim. Without recourse to the spoken word, actors and actresses in that medium are often forced to use their eyes alone to project their emotions.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is filmed almost exclusively in close-ups and medium shots. Joan's face (Renee Maria Falconetti) is on screen at least 40% of the time, but this doesn't seem excessive. She communicates through her eyes a wide enough range of emotions to move us deeply. We fully share in her suffering and joy. We don't need to hear her words. Danish writer-director Carl Dreyer (Ordet) uses the same techniques to depict the cruelty and cynicism of her persecutors.

The real-life Joan of Arc was a 15th-century French peasant girl who claimed she heard voices from God telling her to drive the English out of France. Dressed as a man, she participated in seven military campaigns. Following her inspiration and leadership, the French army overcame the siege of Orleans, liberated Paris and saw the Dauphin crowned at Rheims.

After these victories, she was captured by the English, who used French ecclesiastical authorities loyal to them to put her on trial for heresy. She was burned at the stake in Rouen on May 30, 1431, at the age of 19.

Twenty years later Joan was retried and rehabilitated. She became in succeeding centuries a symbol for those who wanted to protect France from foreign domination. She was canonized in 1920. During World War II, Charles de Gaulle used her Cross of Lorraine to represent the resistance of Free France to the Nazis.

Her story has been told many times — most recently in the trashy 1999 feature The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and in last year's competent but uninspired miniseries starring Leelee Sobieski, Joan of Arc.

When The Passion of Joan of Arc was first released in 1928, French audiences expected a traditional historical pageant with a nationalistic portrait of a female warrior. Instead, writer-director Dreyer gave them a stark, intensely spiritual dramatization of Joan's trial, condensing 18 months and 29 separate interrogations into one prolonged session which takes place the day before her execution. He threw out the screenplay given him by the producers, which had been adapted from Joseph Delteil's book, and based the action and title cards on recently published trial transcripts. The title suggests the popular “passion plays” about the life of Christ staged each year around Easter.

From the film's very first image, Joan is presented as a visionary and her interrogators as men of the world. The English guards and the French ecclesiastical authorities are allied against her. The movie focuses on the differences between her and them in education, class and gender rather than nationality.

Dreyer usually films the inquisitors from low angles, in high contrast. The contours of their faces are harshly illuminated, evoking the sickness in their souls.

Joan's face is presented in softer shades of gray. Her goodness and sincerity seem to emanate from deep interior belief. She is at first confused by her interrogators' hatred but remains resolute in her faith.

Her face lights up at the promise of hearing Mass. But her inquisitors deny her this satisfaction when she refuses to discard her men's clothing, an action they find particularly threatening. “When the mission God gave me is done,” she declares, “I'll dress like a woman.” Then she weeps, covering her face with her hands. As we watch her slowly count out her age on her fingers, we're surprised to discover that such a forceful personality is illiterate.

Led by Bishop Cauchon (Eugene Silvain), her interrogators try to trap her in complicated theological questions that could lead to proof of heresy. “Do you think you're sure of salvation?” she's asked. “Are you in a state of grace? Do you think you've been elected by God?”

In a skillful use of title cards, Dreyer shows her to be their match. “Don't you think the judges are wiser than you?” she's warned. “But God is wiser,” she replies.

Although every sequence and shot is realistic in itself, the overall effect of each in succession is a subjective, and viscerally powerful, expression of Joan's state of mind.

When she's led into the torture room, we experience her fear as she looks at a spiked wheel whirling around faster and faster. We also feel her humiliation when her head is being shaved and shudder at her pain as doctors bleed her for illness.

But throughout the entire ordeal, her eyes are always fixed on God and eternity while her adversaries manipulate the truth for temporary political gain.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.