The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
In the 1928 French silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, director Carl Theodor Dreyer presents nineteen-year-old Joan (Renee Falconetti) in the midst of her trial in 1431, in Rouen, France. The film adapts the primary sources dealing with Joan of Arc’s interrogation from 1431. This true-to-form manner was Dreyer’s intention for the film— to mirror the primary sources of the interrogation to convey cinematic realism (“Realized Mysticism in The Passion of Joan of Arc”). A form of hagiographic cinema, The Passion of Joan of Arc was released eight years after Joan was canonized in 1920 ("The Canonization of Joan of Arc”). In the film, Joan is tried for heresy based on her claims of hearing voices that came directly from God. The men who try her in court include judges and religious officials, such as Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais (Eugène Silvain). They treat her mockingly, not taking her revelations seriously. They laugh at her and spit in her face with complete disrespect. After briefly faltering and confessing to her guilt, Joan recants and then remains consistent in her beliefs that God has divinely inspired her mission. Defying the inquisitors, she is found guilty and burned at the stake. Through Joan’s strength in the film and in written primary sources, Joan has characteristics of a modern day feminist icon, who defies the obstacles placed before her.
One way Joan breaks social norms, which is heavily emphasized in the sources though not as much in the film, is through cross-dressing. Joan wore men’s clothing for three reasons. As described in documents of Joan’s interrogation and seen in the film, the first reason is because of Joan’s voices. Visited by three figures, Saint Margaret, Saint Catherine, and the archangel Michael, Joan’s spiritual guides told her it was her duty to dress in male clothing (Barstow). Secondly, as a designated leader of the French military, she sported armor, just as any member of the military would. The inquisitors questioned her based on her choice to wear men’s clothing. They reduce Joan down to her stereotypical role in society as a woman when they question her. They take issue with her clothes rather than her morality, as seen briefly in the film. Joan also wore men’s clothing while in prison, both in the film and in reality, to protect herself from assault (Williamson). The Passion of Joan of Arc depicts Joan in men’s clothing throughout much of the film. Defying the Church, Joan wore men’s clothing as a duty to herself and to God. Through her defiance, she strayed from society’s norms and held fast to her moral duties.
As an uneducated, peasant woman being judged without representation, by a panel of male inquisitors, Joan’s trial was considerably tipped in the favor of her accusers (Aberth). In the film, this power imbalance manifests itself through its visuals and camera work. As Aberth explains, the film uses the technique of abstraction to visually represent her pain and this imbalance of power. Abstraction is a technique that mainly focuses on the faces of the characters. The framing of the scenes also show the Joan as kneeling and “beneath” the Judges, who sit above her. The camera points upwards to capture the judges, making them appear giant and frightening. In comparison, the camera tilts down to show Joan, making her appear small and frail in comparison. Visually, it tells us that they have authority over her, and that Joan has an unfair fight in her trial. Although she is shown to be clever during her trial, the film argues that she could not possibly win against them in any kind of technical sense.
The Passion of Joan of Arc shows a truncated version of Joan of Arc’s trial, which lasted several months, though in the film it takes place over the course of a day. The film depicts Joan’s dedication to wearing male clothing, following her conscience, and her duty to France. Through Dreyer’s visual abstraction, he shows Joan’s emotions, her pain, and her victimization despite her inner strength.
Aberth, John. "Movies and the Maid." In Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film, 257-98. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003.
Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. "Mystical Experience as a Feminist Weapon: Joan of Arc." Women's Studies Quarterly 13, no. 2 (1985): 26-29.
“Realized Mysticism in The Passion of Joan of Arc.” The Criterion Collection. November 08, 1999. Accessed March 04, 2018. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/69-realized-mysticism-in-the-passion-of-joan-of-arc.
Williamson, Allen, trans. "Excerpts from the Appellate Testimony." Edited by Robert Wirth. In Primary Sources and Context Concerning Joan of Arc's Male Clothing. 2006.
Late Middle Ages (c. 1300-1500)