Every Lent for the last few years, we’ve been watching a worthwhile, faith-related movie together as a family on Friday nights. (Full list at the end.)
The tradition continues! And, in keeping with tradition, right out of the gate we didn’t manage to do it on the first Friday of Lent, but instead started The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) on Saturday, had some streaming issues, and finished watching it Sunday.
Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “MY family would never watch a weird French black-and-white silent film from the 20’s, much less one that got broken up into two nights.” You may be surprised. This is an absolutely enthralling movie. My youngest kid is eight, and she sat there gripping my arm the whole time, and when it was over, she just said, “Wow.”
It follows Joan’s last week or so of life, from her trial at the hands of her captors, until her execution. The historically accurate synopsis is simply: Joan is interrogated, threatened, and tormented as the English and their French collaborators try to get her to sign a document repudiating her actions leading a revolt against the English. She eventually breaks down and complies, and is sentenced to life in prison, but she regrets her moment of weakness, takes it back, and is burned at the stake.
You might think of silent film as relying on exaggerated, histrionic facial distortions, with tossed heads and fluttering fingers, pantomime and rolling eyes meant to stand in for dialogue, but that’s not how this works. It does spend most of the film disconcertingly close to individual faces, with the camera at an odd, discomfitingly low angle, looking up at faces from about chin level.
At first I was reminded of the grotesque faces in so many paintings of Jesus being mocked — Hieronymous Bosch or many others.
But the faces of her tormenters are not actually grotesques. Instead, when you see them leering or smirking or looking outraged or disgusted, it’s just showing humanity at its recognizable worst.
Some pieces of dialogue are displayed on the screen, in French and in English, enough to keep you current with the story. An incredible complexity of emotion is displayed on screen, so although you often see the actors moving their lips and you don’t hear anything but the musical soundtrack, you don’t feel like you’re missing anything. The story and dialogue are taken directly from the contemporary account of her actual trial.
The backgrounds are very spare, with light and shadow making up the most important shapes on screen (although the sets and the costume are painstakingly accurate). Much is made of people passing by windows and in and out of shadow, and appearing in doorways. You could have convinced me the film, with its minimalism and startling angles, was shot in in the 1950’s, rather than in 1928. There is so little on screen besides human faces, every object that appears — especially the woven grass crown that follows Joan around — takes on a gripping significance; and when she is allowed to hold a crucifix as she is led up to her execution space, she cradles it so gratefully and lovingly, and you FEEL that.
You also feel how horrific it is when, previously, they try to coerce her into recanting, showing her the Eucharist — and then, when she refuses, they put the host away again, blow out the candles, and leave her to herself.
I thought many times of people who believe they are following their conscience, and find themselves rejected by the Church, or with people who say they represent the Church. Joan is entirely focused on Jesus, her king; and as soon as her captors understand that she really is devoted to him, they use it against her, and try to coerce her literally with Jesus. It’s horrible. This movie isn’t anti-Church, I don’t think. It doesn’t seem to be trying to convey the idea that the hierarchy is by definition cruel. It does show what happens when you follow Jesus, and when you don’t.
It includes the historically accurate charges against her, that she offends God by wearing men’s clothes, and that she must be guilty of witchcraft; but it doesn’t veer into territory that would surely be unavoidable if it had been made today: You don’t come away with the impression that these evil, patriarchal men are tormenting her because they can’t abide a strong female lead. It does show that they’re evil, but it’s because they don’t recognize holiness, and they don’t love or recognize the Lord. And they’re willing to use Jesus as a weapon.
There are several different musical scores that accompany different versions of this film. The one we saw, from Criterion, had “Voices of Light” by Richard Einhorn, written in 1994, and I can’t imagine an improvement. It sounded both hauntingly modern and bracingly medieval, and it sometimes underscores the emotion on screen, but sometimes provides an emotional counterpoint or contrast that heightens the sense of seeing the action from a perspective perhaps beyond the natural world. Worth listening to on its own.
In the first part, Jane is feverish and her eyes bug out in an unnatural fashion that is exhausting to watch, but after she has been bled, threatened with torture, and interrogated some more, her eyelids droop more and more, and you can’t help but internally mirror her. Although the camera isn’t from Joan’s perspective, the experience of the film is not a normal viewer experience., where the viewer watches a story unfold. It is an ordeal, in some ways, but a bracingly compelling one, that makes you feel like something is happening to you. You don’t want to look away, as you might during, for instance, The Passion of the Christ; instead, you find yourself straining all your senses so as to be as present as possible in what feels like a real encounter with something beyond a story. It’s not that it’s so realistic (although the camera seeks out every pore, hair, wrinkle, and tear on every face). It feels instead like something you remember or something you dreamed about: Not realistic, but more intimate than reality.
Before and during her execution, the camera pans past the faces in the crowd, and you see there, as you did earlier with the judges, bald human emotion, frailty, pain, regret, and also foolishness, fear, perversion. The camera spends so much time on individual faces, not only on Joan’s but on everyone’s, that you come to realize everyone is on trial. Everyone is being searched, and is given a chance to either be faithful, or not.
I wondered, as I always do when I think about Joan of Arc, why God chose to intervene in history in such an unusually political way. Joan apparently got direct orders to lead a military charge in order to bring about a specific regime change, and it really feels like God is rooting for one country over another, which seems . . . unusually Old Testamenty. But then I thought, maybe he does actually do this often, and the people he speaks to just decide not to respond! I just don’t know. In any case, this Joan is so singlemindedly fixed on her love of Christ, and her obedience to him, that you can see that that really is the main point — love and obedience — and anything else she does is merely the form her love happens to take.
That being said, she is terrified. She’s not brash or beyond human emotion. She trembles and weeps and struggles as she fights to stay true to Jesus, and you can see that she trusts God but is still terribly afraid of where that trust will lead her. She is holy, but also clearly only 19. Early on, they ask her if she knows the Lord’s Prayer, and who taught it to her. She says, “Ma mère” and a tear slips down her cheek.
Here is the “Has God made you promises?” scene.
Never ever have I seen such acting before. And it’s just her face.
There aren’t a lot of tellingly clever lines or ideas, although Joan comes across as outwitting the judges a few times, just because she’s completely honest. When they hope to trap her by asking if she’s in a state of grace, she says, “If I am not, God put me there. If I am, please God so keep me.” When they ask if God has promised to free her, she says yes, but she doesn’t know the day or the hour.
This very simplicity, and the way she is both faithful and fearful, is the most memorable depiction of faith I can recall ever seeing. The movie pretty overtly shows Joan is walking in the same steps as Jesus in his final hours. It would make very appropriate viewing for Holy Week, and it would be perfect for kids of high school age.
Content warnings: It shows torture devices and many scenes where Joan is in terror; it shows her being bled to relieve a fever, and it shows her being executed. You see her alive and inhaling smoke, and then you see her burned, already-dead body through the flames, so it’s clear what is happening, but it’s not extremely graphic. The entire movie is tense and alarming, so even though you don’t clearly see the worst things that happen to her, I can imagine this movie leading to nightmares for sensitive viewers. But she is so clearly triumphant at the end, it leaves you feeling — well, as I said, like something happened to you. Something good.
Here is the list of movies we’ve watched in previous years, with link to ReelGood so you can see where to stream them, and my review (if any):