Wednesday 16 January 2013

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

There was a film about Bob Dylan a few years ago (I'm Not There, 2007) in which a cast of fairly notable actors played different aspects of the real man in different settings and eras.  Cate Blanchett seemed to me the most obviously excellent, though since the Bob Dylans also included Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and Christian Bale it seems wrong to single only one out for praise.  It seemed a very good format for a biopic about anybody complicated, or who gathered many stories.

I thought afterwards that you could use a similar set-up for a film about Jesus - except, I thought, dividing him up (as he were Earth in the time of Peleg) and relocating his portions throughout time and space would necessarily mean telling the stories of various Christ-like people (which is already done in the movies, lots), as to do it properly you'd end up showing your audience several only-son-of-Gods in places less appropriate than 1st Century Jewry, and it would just look odd (or, you know, really Mormon).

'La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc' (to give its French title, though it seems to be claimed equally by the French and Danish, with the actors silently voicing one language while the intertitles use the other) would fit well into such a biopic of myriad Jesuses.  As a glimpse at the title and screen-caps will tell you, this is a story with an extraordinary similarity to Jesus' last hours before his crucifixion.

With its script drawn from contemporaneous reports of the trial, this is the story of Joan of Arc's condemnation and execution by the fifteenth century version of the Sanhedrin.  She's questioned, mocked and condemned, and she holds to the truth, or to silence, refusing to speak the answers that would easily save her life - holding tight to a hope of the resurrection.  It's a harrowing film of extreme close-ups, as we watch horror, fear and alarm creep across Joan's gaunt face.  There's really no hope that the trial will end anywhere but death.

When I was watching German talkies of the 1930s, I wondered at the static shots, and speculated that moving cameras may not have caught on so early as that.  It was a surprise, seeing this film from half a decade earlier, to find the camera moving ceaselessly, tracking over the long bench of the prosecutors, pursuing faces, swinging up and down to follow maces thrown down from a window in the violent finale.  It's a visually interesting film, with the trial conducted and guarded by scowling lawyers and characterful grotesques, set against the plain, androgynous face of the suffering Joan.  Though the locations and characters are few, the camera never shows us anything that isn't worth seeing and examining.  An extraordinary performance, and a horrible occurrence.

P.S. I worry sometimes that my posts are growing unreadably lengthy - and since this is one of the first I watched and wrote about (though held off in a backlog) it's mercifully shorter than some, though it occurs to me I've only dedicated two paragraphs to the film itself.  Whoops!

P.P.S. The next film I'll post about here will be 'The Lord of the Rings' (2001-2003), and the next film I watch?  Gosh, I've no idea.  I'm spoilt for choice.  'King Ralph' (1991), perhaps?  Yes, I like that idea.

It's a fascinating film, and in pretty good nick.  If you fancy trying a silent film I'd recommend this as a fine start.

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