Carl Theodor Dreyer, director of the acclaimed silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), called the human face a “declaration of the soul.” In a film consisting mostly of tight shots of the face of Joan (Maria Falconetti in her lone film role, a performance Pauline Kael dubbed perhaps “the finest performance ever recorded on film”), Dreyer deploys Joan’s facial expressions as a means of revealing her soul, of communicating to viewers her confusion, sorrow, mental agility, resolution, and agony. The film makes great Holy Week viewing, as does Babette’s Feast, a Danish film from 1987, based on a short story by Isak Dinesen. In quite different ways, the films illustrate Donne’s poetic thesis about the revelation of spiritual realities, love’s mysteries, in and through the body. Pairing the two films is especially fitting this week, since they capture the dramatically contrasting moments of Holy Week, the experience of tragic desolation and apparent divine abandonment of Good Friday and the joy of resurrection and reconciliation — an anticipation of the heavenly banquet.
Dreyer’s film, released in the decade following the canonization of Joan of Arc as a saint of the Catholic Church, was presumed lost, until the 1981 discovery of an intact copy in a Norwegian mental institution. The film is now available in a Criterion Collection DVD that contains an informative commentary track from University of Copenhagen Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg. Also included is Richard Einhorn’s oratorio Voices of Light, a work that was inspired by the film and, on the DVD, can played along with the film—an option I highly recommend as it enhances the emotional impact of the film.
Although Dreyer compresses the trial itself, a drawn-out affair that consisted of 29 sessions of legal examinations and torture. He nonetheless wants to give the impression of a documentary that distills the core truth concerning Joan and her trial. The film opens with a depiction of pages from an ancient text, a report of the trial. Even for the age of silent films, the visual quality of the film is unadorned and minimalist. Dreyer opted not to deploy elaborate sets, costumes, or even make-up. There are no establishing shots, that is, no scenes that provide a wider context for the location of the action. Dreyer makes such pervasive use of close shots and shots from odd angles that it is impossible to discern where individuals are placed in relation to one another. The camera’s focus is almost exclusively on the faces of the characters, particularly the visage of Joan.
Critics complained that the approach was monotonous and taxing. But there is a subtle and disturbing artistry to the way the camera is used in the film. Tight shots, shots from odd angles, the pairing of shots of individuals in conversation in such a way that they appear not to be looking at each other — all this serves to underscore Joan’s disorientation. The artistry of the film makes clear that our smug certainties about our human way of pursuing justice and truth are fragile indeed. Here the medium comments on the content: Order is subverted rather than upheld. The saint provides testimony both of the disorder of our ways and of the existence of a higher way, invisible to mortal eyes. As Joan says in response to the question of whether she still believes that God sent her: “His ways are not our ways.” The film gestures outside or beyond the frame of the camera, indeed outside the visible to the invisible order with which Joan is in constant contact.
Joan’s inquisitors repeatedly try to trap her. In response to their questions, she exhibits quite a bit of intellectual dexterity. Asked whether she is in a state of grace, she deftly replies, “If I am, may God keep me there; if I am not, may He bring me there.” Joan’s personal visions and testimonies unsettle some church authorities because they seem to claim an authority independent of the church. But what makes Joan such a problematic case is that she simultaneously proclaims (and also practices) fidelity to the church, especially in her devotion to the sacraments.
Given her commitment to the truth, her moment of greatest risk is not that of death, but an earlier moment in which, worn down by the trial and by physical illness, she relents and signs a self-incriminating document. Soon, though, she proclaims that she has committed a great sin in lying to save her own life. At that point, her death is assured — but her link to the truth is restored.
On the surface, the story is a tragedy for Joan, signaling her defeat at the hands of her accusers. But at a deeper level, the film announces her ultimate vindication; it does so by inscribing her own trial, suffering, and death within the passion of Christ. From religious officials attempting to trap her with spurious questions through the way she is taunted by her torturers to the close-up depiction of her bare feet as she traverses stone steps on the way to her execution, Joan’s final days mirror those of Christ.
If the spiritual is manifest indirectly in The Passion of Joan of Arc, through the strategy of breaking down the apparent integrity of our human order of things, it is manifest more directly in Babette’s Feast, a story of the sacramental celebration of sensible delight and communal reconciliation as a sign of the heavenly banquet (Luke 14:23 and Matthew 22:1-10). Set in Denmark amid a small, austere community of Protestant Christians, united in their devotion to their founding pastor, whom they honor as “priest and prophet,” the film focuses on the founder’s beautiful daughters, Martine and Filippa. Named after the great reformers Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, the daughters early on attract the attention of worthy suitors. Neither daughter is capable of freeing herself from her father and the community he has established. One of Martine’s suitors, Lorens Löwenhielm, leaves disappointed; learning from this religious family that “earthly love and marriage” are mere illusions, he vows to devote himself to his career and becomes a decorated general. Another, Achille Papin, a famous Parisian opera singer, discovers a great musical talent in Filippa, but he too is rebuffed.