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A Saint Observed: Revisiting The Passion of Joan of Arc 

Without words and over ninety years old, the classic 1928 silent film still has a boundless energy and powerful vision that can captivate even the most jaded viewers.

USCCB Rating: A-II
MPAA Rating: NR
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5 Reels

Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Written by Carl Theodor Dreyer and Joseph Delteil
Starring Renée Jeanne Falconetti

In an amazing twist of fate, The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne dArc, 1928) endured a trail (or trial) quite similar to that of its protagonist. Numerous copies were accidentally burned and others censored, leading many to believe whole sections of the film were lost to history. Miraculously, in 1981, an original negative in pristine condition was found deep in a closet of a Norwegian mental institution. It’s almost as if God wanted the world to see this film. The Passion perfectly demonstrates what it means to be a saint, flaws and all, in a fallen world. With brilliant acting and revolutionary directing techniques, it is widely considered the pinnacle of silent film-making, a prized gift to the world of cinema from the eldest daughter of the Church (albeit by a Danish director).

The plot of The Passion of Joan of Arc, based on the actual transcript of the 1431 trial, mirrors the Stations of the Cross almost to a tee. It begins with Joan’s (Renée Falconetti) interrogation by a dozen or so clerics in British occupied Normandy. These old, crusty men with faces of gargoyles range from cunning to arrogant to downright vicious. While motivated by political rather spiritual reasons, they again and again try to coerce Joan to admit her visions, including the command to drive the English from France, were from the Devil rather than God. At first, she answers simply like a child, but gradually grows cleverer. “Are you in a state of grace?” they inquire. She responds, “If I am, God keep me there. If not, may God grant it to me.”

Unable to sway her, her jailers humiliate and torment her, mocking her by placing a straw crown on her head. When finally lead to her execution by burning at the stake, a woman approaches to give Joan a drink. As she dies in the fire, a faithful peasant from the crowd cries, “You have burned a saint!” To be a saint means not just dying to the world every day but actively living for the Kingdom. For Joan this meant freeing her people from an unjust invader; for a parent it might mean something far less dramatic, such as sleepless nights or keeping calm while changing the diaper of an especially fussy baby.

At the center of The Passion of Joan of Arc is Renée Falconetti’s performance of the Maid of Orleans, often cited as the greatest performance captured on celluloid. It is all the more remarkable considering Falconetti was famous for light stage comedies; this film was her only screen credit. Dreyer shoots nearly every line of dialogue in close-up or extreme close-up to highlight even the smallest tear, wrinkle, or look – a technique frequently used today, especially by director Tom Hooper.

Falconetti shows that saints are not distant ideals but real people who get lonely, tired, and frustrated. When asked who taught her the Lord’s Prayer, Joan begins to cry. “My mother,” she whimpers. It’s easy to forget this is a nineteen-year-old, illiterate farm girl far from home, overwhelmed at times by the magnitude and mystery of her call. Despite this, she is smart and determined, constantly outwitting the judges with a skill that St. Thomas More would admire. A judge mocks her visions of the archangel Michael, “Did he have clothes or was he naked?” Joan grins, “Do you not think God could have clothed him?” While she imitates the passion, she falters, briefly recanting her testament out of fear. She quickly admits her error and accepts her faith. All saints sin; what matteres is that they sought God’s mercy and persevered. Being a saint involves trusting God in all things. Even Joan, facing her death, prays, “Will I see you today in Paradise?” It can be difficult to discern God’s will but still believe that God does have a plan.

Another wonderfully Catholic aspect of this film is how it highlights the sacredness of the sacraments. For example, the music follows a technique used in The Passion of the Christ, becoming more and more beautiful as the images become more and more horrific, and the gentlest music occurs when the judges present the Eucharist to Joan. However, Joan is told that she must recant her testimony in order to receive the Host. A look of great anguish overcomes her. The central judge taunts her, saying, “Would you refuse Jesus?” She wants to receive Communion with all her heart and soul but it would mean lying about everything God has told her; she watches them take Jesus away like they were removing her dearest friend – which they are.

One priest takes pity on her and asks if she would like Confession. She smiles joyfully; it is a great solace before her death. Once her execution is proclaimed, they do allow her to receive the Sacrament, which she takes with tremendous reverence and love. This devotion to Christ’s Body and Blood is reminiscent of many great figures, such as Cardinal Thuận, who spent thirteen years in a Vietnamese Communist prison and used a few drops of wine and crumbs of bread to say Mass on a small cardboard box. The Passion provides a powerful and moving antidote to the casual manner in which far too many Catholics participate in the sacraments.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a work of pure art. Every frame is gorgeous, placing Joan squarely in the center while the others hover on the margins. Without words and some ninety years old, it still has a boundless energy that can captivate even the most jaded viewers. Most importantly, it is a real experience that can bring one closer to God by imitating his saints.

Author’s note: Almost all silent films were originally screened with live musical accompaniment. There was no definitive score written for this film and no contemporary versions have survived. Over the years, many composers have written scores to this film. The best is Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light. The review of this film includes his orchestration.


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About Nick Olszyk 140 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

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