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"The Passion of Joan of Arc"

St. Joan's feast day is May 30, so I'm posting this early in hopes some readers might rent Theodore Dreyer's 1928 silent film, "The Passion of Joan of Arc," from their video/DVD providers this month for a look-see. (I got it on Netflix.)

Commonweal's film critic Richard Alleva wrote a fine essay on Dreyer's film style in 2005, which prompted me to rent the movie.

Critics have described the restored version of the film with superlatives for good reason. It looks like a film that was made just last week, crystal clear images and fluid camera work.

Maria Falconetti as Joan is luminously beautiful, if somewhat lugubrious. And her tormenters convey their connivance without resorting (mostly) to broad stage-villain gestures. The dialogue Dreyer uses is drawn from the transcripts of Joan's trial, but you hardly need to refer to it at all to understand what's going on.

Richard Einhorn's modern soundtrack, "Voices of Light," adds an ethereal quality. It's good as these things go, and maybe worth listening to for its own value. I preferred watching the film in silence.

"The Passion," made just two years after Joan's canonization, shows a young woman whose faith transcended the political situation in which she became embroiled, and goes a long way toward explaining why her cause was controversial as well as why she was finally declared a saint.

Dreyer presents the story in stark simplicities, the better to underscore how Joan sees Christ in simple things, in everything--a cross in the shadow her prison bars make on the floor, a crown she makes from a rough strand of rope pulled out of the trash, doves that congregate like angels on a chimney. These images build to a crescendo, leading Joan to the inescapable conclusion that union with God is possible only through martyrdom.

Joan both fears and longs for that union. She has a choice, and we all know which one she makes. Near the end of the film, as Joan is being tied to the stake, her executioner drops the rope binding her. Joan picks it up automatically hand hands it back to him, a simple, heartbreaking gesture, and one that speaks volumes about where she is willing to be led.

The burning sequence isn't gory, but extremely realistic, and, in my opinion, too emotionally intense for young children, but the film might be interesting to watch with teenagers. 

Some questions they could consider: 

1. Joan's high-born, well educated accusers probably didn't believe in her visions and thought it would be easy to discredit her. How easy would it be for you to believe a homeless, illiterate, cross-dressing person who said God spoke to him or her?

2. Why was it important to the English that Joan be tried for heresy instead of simply being executed as a political prisoner?

3. Joan's canonization must be seen as a tacit admission that some members of the Church martyred Joan for her faith. What does Joan's story say about the institutional Church? What does the film say about the notion that the Church is the people of God, not just the clergy and religious? Does it say anything about the nature of the Church's infallibility?

4. Joan's cause was controversial and took centuries to conclude, but it inspired many along the way, including Mark Twain and G.B. Shaw. How does Joan's story inspire you?

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I saw the film in 1958, give a year or two. It is unforgettable.

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