The Passion of St. Joan of Arc

The Passion of St. Joan of Arc

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken

This week, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is released on DVD. The DVD release will likely be as financially successful as the original release, although the film’s detractors certainly did their best to prevent any theatrical release at all.

As most anyone with a functioning long-term memory can recall, The Passion of the Christ generated a significant amount of controversy when it was first released earlier this year. In many cases, the release spawned numerous comparisons to films featuring the entire life of Jesus, and often these comparisons were intended to highlight Gibson’s great crime of focusing solely on the crucifixion of Jesus. As one might guess from an exhaustive examination of the title, The Passion of the Christ is in fact, about the Passion of the Christ, and is at its core a film about persecution, suffering, and death. Given the divergent subject matter, though, the comparisons between The Passion and other Jesus movies are not really appropriate. It would make more sense to compare Gibson’s film to other films that are themselves passion tales, and while reviewing the recent smear campaign against Gibson’s film I am reminded of another passion film that has become available on DVD in recent years: Carl Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Accused of spreading hate and being too focused on death and suffering, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc was also surrounded by controversy when it was first released. It was censored by governments, denounced as propaganda, and almost lost to history forever. In many ways, Dreyer’s The Passion was the victim of the same revulsion to supernatural virtue that would be directed at Gibson’s The Passion almost eight decades later.

Carl Dreyer’s film is regarded as one of the greatest films ever produced, and in its treatment of Jeanne’s agony (expertly acted by Renee Falconetti), there has rarely been a film made that has so starkly exposes the suffering and heroic courage of a human being. In its depiction of the heroine of the Hundred Years’ War, La Passion was denounced as "Anti-English propaganda," censored by the British government, criticized for not focusing enough on the happier moments of Jeanne’s life, and eventually deemed a "harrowing and crushing" experience not suitable for viewing by ordinary people. Unfortunately, unlike The Passion of the Christ, relatively few people have seen Dreyer’s film, but it is a film constructed with such devotion to human drama, historical accuracy, and artful imagery, that it is an experience not to be missed.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Dreyer’s film is the careful treatment it gives the historical realities of the time. Apart from the central story of Jeanne’s ordeal leading up to her execution, La Passion is also an interesting look at the dynamics between Church and State authorities during the late Middle Ages. A lesser filmmaker would have simply presented Church and State authorities as corrupt and evil elites, motivated by an identical lust for power, yet Dreyer is not satisfied with such simplifications. The dynamic presented by Dreyer is a political one. Most notable of the political hacks in Dreyer’s film — and in reality — is Bishop Pierre Cauchon who, seeking influence with the English, is most enthusiastic about prosecuting Jeanne. At the same time, the English invaders were eager to accept his help, and to gain retribution from Jeanne who had so often humiliated them in battle over the course of her military career.

Since men had not yet invented the canard of war crimes tribunals in the 15th century, the English, concluding that it would be in bad form to execute Jeanne simply for besting them in battle, sought to have her executed as a witch and a heretic instead. Dreyer alludes to this plan in a variety of ways, and most especially when the English commanding officer tells the Inquisitor that "not for anything do I want her to die a natural death." At one point in the film, Jeanne recants and the Inquisitors commute her death sentence, enraging the English occupiers.

Historically, the complicity between the local Church officials and the secular authorities during Jeanne’s trial were numerous. Against Church law, Jeanne was held in a secular prison while being tried for non-secular crimes, was denied female attendants, and was refused access to the sacraments. Dreyer shows English soldiers frequently whispering in the ears of churchmen and demanding ever harsher treatment and punishment. Joan requested an appeal to the Pope, but this was illegally refused, and at Jeanne’s re-trial twenty-four years later, her original trial and her execution were declared in defiance of a myriad of ecclesiastical laws, and her sentence was annulled.

As revealed through Dreyer’s dramatic photography, it becomes clear that the trial of Jeanne d’Arc is an excellent example of the type of show trials that governments manufacture under a guise of moral legitimacy in order to take revenge upon their enemies. Unfortunately, the local religious authorities, smelling political power, are often all too eager to ingratiate themselves with those who live by the sword. At the conclusion of Dreyer’s film, the people of Rouen riot in response to the obvious injustice of Jeanne’s execution, and the rioters are brutally crushed by the English soldiers as Jeanne’s corpse burns.

It is not terribly surprising then, that the British censor attempted to prevent the release of Dreyer’s film in the United Kingdom, but when confronted with history, their objections had very little ground to stand on. (Interestingly, many French authorities would seek to censor The Passion of the Christ decades later, only to be foiled by heroic Muslim businessmen.) Yet, in spite of the censorship, the appalled reviewers, and the fact that most of the original prints were lost to fire, the film survives as an example of cinema at its best. Today, this assessment of the film persists not because Dreyer gives such a nuanced and detailed treatment to a complex political subject (something virtually never seen in modern American films), but because the essence of the film is the human drama between Jeanne and her judges.

The entirety of Jeanne’s trial in 1431 was recorded by Church scribes, and Dreyer was committed to remaining faithful to this transcript, taking most of the screenplay’s dialogue verbatim from the Latin text. Thus Dreyer, looking to give the viewer the impression that he was "viewing reality through a keyhole," wanted to focus on the recorded facts of the trial. He had no interest in showing Jeanne’s military exploits or her pastoral life before she began to have religious visions. Instead he chose to focus on her simple wisdom, her religious piety (the stories about her "fairy trees" and sorcery have no factual basis), and her devotion to the truth in the face of corrupt and prevaricating officials looking to manufacture an excuse — any excuse — to put her to death.

In the end, Dreyer’s film must be seen as the greater effort if compared with The Passion of the Christ (but this hardly makes Gibson’s effort insignificant). The realism, the acting, and most especially the exploration of the emotional and mental desolation experienced by the condemned are developed by Dreyer in a way that is not easily copied. The chief weakness of Gibson’s film was what seemed to be its emphasis on physical suffering with limited attention to emotional anguish. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc provides a suffering that can be universally understood. Yet, the events portrayed in these films cannot be understood apart from their historical context, and if we’re lucky, both of these films may help us appreciate the human frailty and pride that leads to injustice, for such things are no less real today then they were 500 or 2000 years ago.