Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Passion of Joan of Arc

The cover of dvd copies of The Passion of Joan of Arc feature a close up of Joan's face. It is an extremely apt image to represent the film, as much of the movie consists of close-ups on her face, and the power of the movie lies in her and the other actors ability to evoke nuanced and powerful emotion without the words to suplement it. There are a lot of things that I could write about with regards to this film, but I think the thing that struck me most is how alien the culture in which is takes place is to us.

The experience of watching The Passion of Joan of Arc as a modern movie-goer is disconcerting at first. It is a silent movie in the true sense of the word, no music was originally composed or selected for it. The way it is shot feels disjointed. As Roger Ebert points out in his review:

"There is a language of shooting and editing that we subconsciously expect at the movies. We assume that if two people are talking, the cuts will make it seem that they are looking at one another... ...Almost all such visual cues are missing from ``The Passion of Joan of Arc.''"

I found myself initially wondering if I could get into the movie -- it felt too different, alien in it's age and style, not to mention the unfamiliarity of the story. It is a testimony to the strength of the movie and the performances of the actors, particularly Renee Maria Falconetti, that I ended the film utterly enthralled and on the verge of tears.

Though we can definitely engage with the film our experience of it -- particularly that of watching a historic movie that was made in a period which is now historic itself remains disconcerting. It is difficult to figure out what is a product of the period the film takes place in and what is a product of the era in which it was produced, but in the end I suppose that is not a delineation that necessarily needs to be made for the film to be interesting or powerful.

Dreyer threw out the screenplay he had been given and used the transcripts of Joan's actual trial. The end result is a pretty incredible insight into a worldview that is incredibly different from ours. The judges' questions are tangled theological questions that would have any of us -- even the most religious -- utterly confused. The most famous question is one of the judges asking Joan if she is in a state of grace. This might seem innocuous to us, but to them it was a key question, and her answer was the only answer that wouldn't have immediately led them to declaring her a heretic. They didn't care that she'd led brilliant military victories against their allies or been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of soldiers. They cared that she claimed to have had visions. They cared that she wore mens clothing. These were people to whom religion was the most important thing in the world.

It's an amazingly different environment than ours. As the trial continues you realize that while the trial certainly wasn't fair by any standard, it also at least in the eyes of the judges wasn't a sham. It was really important to them to know whether Joan was a heretic or not, and at least one of the characters seems to genuinely care for her. It is a testament to the subtlety of the acting that you can tell that some of the judges deliver their, "I have great sympathy for you Joan." genuinely and others do not without the aid of tone of voice.

Of course Joan if anything takes religion even more seriously than the judges. It is the most important thing in her life -- she lives for it. In the face of all the torture the two moments that come closest to making her break are the moments when she is offered the possibility of attending mass or recieving communion. The sense of longing in her eyes as the priest holds the host in front of her is that of a person who hasn't eaten for a month.

We live in a very different world now -- regardless of individual belief religion is no longer a matter of trials and burnings at the stake, and holding someone back from communion is no longer an effective form of torture.

I recently went to a mass at my brother's church St. Mark's. The service happened to be the feast of Corpus Christi in which they parade the host around the church glorifying it. It is not a commonly celebrated service, and it definitely felt strange. Like the film the mass was an echo of a time when people's understanding of the world was fundamentally different. There is a tendency for people who are interested in tradition to only maintain those which are comfortable, or to allow traditions to be transformed so that they fit with our modern worldview. It was refreshing to see a community not do that, to see them performs a service which feels unfamiliar and which gives us an insight into the way people percieved the world hundreds of years ago. For the space of the mass we could almost be standing next to Falconetti's Joan. She would be staring at the paraded host with that longing that at least to me feels so alien. But at the end of the service we walk out into the sunlight and into our world in which a woman won't be burned alive for wearing men's clothing or answering theological questions incorrectly.

The historian in me wonders what people will regard with a similar sense of wonder and alienation when they look back on us from 600 years from now. If I had to venture a guess it would be our faith in the truth of our economic world. I have a tendancy to be very critical of tradition or at the very least mistrustful of it. All too often the traditional is merely a way of adding a fake sense of legitimacy and permanence to things that lack both. In watching The Passion of Joan of Arc I was reminded of how experiencing the past whether through film or tradition can also be a powerful reminder of how dramatically worldviews can change, and how the truths we see as so obvious may in reality be seen as strangely in another time as we see the belief's of Joan and her judges.

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