Growing up, I spent Sunday after Sunday sitting in a non distinct Catholic church. Like most Catholic churches, it was named after a saint. However, through most of my youth, I didn’t give much thought to the woman the church was named after; not who she was, nor why she was a saint. All I knew was that the images of her in stained glass and carved into wood always had her wearing armour and surrounded by flames.
While I haven’t been back to that church in some time, I still think about it every now and then. I think about it this time of year as the season of Lent arrives on the calendar, and I certainly think about it when I watch such a marvellous film on the church’s namesake: St.Joan of Arc.
The plot of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is legend by now. Based on historical events, it begins as Joan (Maria Falconetti) is brought to trial. Joan believes that she was handed a mission by God to drive the English out of France. Now charged with heresy, she stands before a high court that is hellbent on forcing her to discredit herself or abandon her beliefs. Joan, however, remains steadfast. She endures deception and torture, holding firm to her beliefs – and for those beliefs being sentenced to death. Her sentence is carried out when she is burned at the stake.
What struck me as most fascinating about JOAN OF ARC was how little I tired of watching Falconetti. Whole volumes have been filled about how expressive her face is, and rightfully so. The woman’s eyes convey so much intensity, that she could likely reduce even the most hardened viewer to a quivering mess with just a glance. Joan’s trial lasts about 60 minutes of this 82 minute film, and just about every other shot in those 60 minutes comes back to Falconetti. You might think it would get tedious to watch one person’s silent face for half an hour, and in many case you might be right. Where Falconetti is concerned though, you never want to look away. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then Falconetti is the north wall of a glass house. So very much washes over her through the course of the trial; so much serenity, so much devotion, so much anguish.
So ensconced is she in her performance, that one might think that one was watching a documentary…if there was such a thing as documentaries in 15th Century France.
In some ways, I was happy that I watched this film from the comfort of my couch, as it allowed me some elbow room as I soaked in its visual intensity. Had I seen this film in a theatre (as I so often preach the importance of), I would have been even more shaken and pummelled. It would leave me with nowhere to look, nowhere to stretch. It would have sat me down on the hot seat right next to Joan and grilled me too.
That’s what all of those intense close-ups are intended to do – to rattle the audience. Suffice it to say I was suitably rattled.
Watching THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, I began to think about the way artists have portrayed legends, icons, and saints. Throughout history, such people have been the inspiration for some of the greatest art in the world – be it glorious symphonies, masterful paintings, or indeed powerful films. Sometimes, the trick comes down to embodying both their humanity and their divinity. However, if an artist leans too far one way or the other, they’re in trouble. They’ll be held to account for lionizing someone who doesn;t deserve it – or equally as bad, disrespecting someone who does.
So where’s the line? How does an artist achieve something like this instead of…say…Luc Besson’s THE MESSENGER?
Interestingly, I don’t think it comes down to whether one believes in the icon or not. While faith in a being can help one find the inspiration to create a glowing portrayal, it could also drive one to be dishonest. When one believes, one overlooks flaws and inconsistencies. Therefore, creating a piece of art inspired by an idol runs the risk of blind praise.
Likewise, I don’t think that the artist can be completely void of belief on some level. What makes the inspiration so special – so inspiring – has to come through in the art. While Dreyer claims that he made a film about Joan of Arc by dumb luck, I have to believe that he found some part about the 19-year-old Frenchwoman’s story compelling. Had he not, he wouldn’t have been so driven to tell it in such a fascinating and intense manner.
Watching JOAN OF ARC eighty-five years after its release, I was deeply shaken by how amazingly well it has held up and struck with thoughts of faith.
I was raised Catholic, and while I haven’t exactly “practised” in quite some time, it’s still a part of where I came from. (Sidebar: I always get visions of playing piano scales when I hear the term “practising” in regards to religion) I stuck with it into my early twenties because of the way faith was taught to me. It was never taught to me as something to be driven into others, or something that one wore as a badge of honour. What I took from everything I was taught was that it was something personal, something that could be drawn upon, and something that might occasionally be tested. happily, everyone’s tests are different, and none of mine involved a post and a box of matches.
I’m pretty sure that Carl Theodor Dreyer was not a Catholic, which might have worked in his favour in portraying the theme of faith in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. Through the ages, faith has been contorted and dishonoured time after time. Worse yet, it has often been dropped at the first sign of trouble. Looking back at such regard for faith, perhaps Dreyer understood that zeroing in on Joan’s faith would make the best statement on the subject.
It ultimately works much better than if he’d tried to reaffirm his own – what’s more, his musings on the faith allow his audience to learn something about their own.
I intend to post my entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for February…
Andrew Robinson watched M
Will watched Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Allison watched They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
SDG watched The French Connection
Steven Flores watched Mona Lisa
Dan Heaton watched The King of New York
We have a new participant! Amir watched Modern Romance
Courtney watched Le Samourai
Andy Hart watched Modern Times
The Snowflake has fallen! Bob Turnbull watched Saturday Night Fever and Grease
Andy Buckle watched Ordet