Religion in Film: Faith as an Absolute/ The Passion of Joan of Arc

This is part of a religion in film series, concerning spirituality in its many forms through the cinematic lens. In this article I will be exploring Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. The film chronicles the real life trial of Joan who was burned at the stake for claiming she was sent by God to lead France towards victory over England during the hundred year war. The film is unrelenting in its representation of religious persecution, but ultimately it becomes a portrait of someone who is willing to lay down her life in full service of God. I will focus primarily on this aspect and what it really means to have faith and dedicate your life to God.

Jean Massieu: How can you still believe that you were sent by God?

Joan: His ways are not our ways.

I recently attended a funeral of my Uncle. He was my oldest Uncle on my mother’s side, which is the part of my family that is very religious. I had not seen my Uncle in many years, in fact I can’t remember the last time I saw him. I do have an indelible impression of him through Christmas memories at my Grandparents where he and my Aunt usually attended, and he always carried with him a warm and approchable smile.

I learned much about my Uncle at the funeral, like all of my distant relatives, I was most sorry I didn’t have a strong connection with him, or that I didn’t know him more. I got the impression he was a strong believer in family, community, and friends, and I no doubt feel he lead a full life. I couldn’t help but think that a lot of that had to do with his relationship with God. My Uncle was a true believer in God, he attended chuch every Sunday until he was too weak to go. His extremely large family bared witness to his faith and carried on his tradition. At the funeral, his eldest daughter, an ordained minister performed the eulogy. She spoke about her father in a very spiritual manner, and the way she spoke was more like a sermon of faith rather than personal memories. She believed he was in heaven, and her belief in that didn’t waiver. Listening to her words, I couldn’t help but be in a little awe at the unequivocal faith she displayed in her speech.

I can’t help it, but I suppose I’ve always admired people who have that kind of faith. I wonder where they get it from, how they are able to dedicate their lives to this kind of belief system. I’ve stated in my earlier articles, my problem with religion growing up, and how my personal experience has soured me almost wholy from the church. However, there is a part of me that I feel is forever linked to it. It has beceome engrained in who I am, and because I chose to leave it doesn’t give me the right of entitlement to think I’m any better because of it. Whatever one may think of people of religious faith, it’s difficult to deny a certain fulfillment in their lives which may be lost in others.

Turning this idea of uneqivicol faith to film, one only needs to turn to The Passion of Joan of Arc. Often regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, it has never lost any of its lustre, and is as beautiful to look at as ever. The image of Maria Falconetti as Joan is the ideal embodiment of eternal faith which I don’t think has ever been matched. The minimalist production design was carefully modeled to create an authetic look of mideval architecture. The camera work is unique in how it focuses in on the actors’ facial features, sometimes seeming to forgo establishing shots of locations in favor of a psychological state of mind. The film very much feels like a fever dream in Joan’s mind, combining the nightmare trial which will result in her death, but also the transcendent regard for her faith that God will eventually be her deliverer.

The technical acheivement of the film is undeniable, but it results in one of the most emotional stories ever put to screen. The film is based on the actual record of Joan’s trial which director Carl Theodore Dreyer used to create a very fact based examination on one woman’s faith. The film runs at a brief but astonishing 82 minutes, and was thought to be lost until an original print of the film was rather remarkably found inside a janitor’s closet at an Oslo mental hospital, making the fact it was very close in becoming a forgotten film a miracle unto itself.

Since first seeing it as a teenager, the film has always stayed with me, and as far as my own personal feelings towards faith, it breaths life into my own inner discussion with myself. It raises questions, I have within myself, not unlike the questions I was faced with when I heard the eulogy at my Uncle’s funeral.

For a character like Joan, she finds fulfillment and purpose in her relationship with God. The judges, Bishops, and Monks, who put her on trial carry a certain hypocrisy in their hearts when they try to question her motives, which, coming from the tremendous performance from Falconetti always ring authentic, she honestly believes she was sent from God to lead France to victory against the English. Although Joan is put through the ringer, which includes intimidation, humiliation, and torture, she is resolute in her ways, and when faced with moments of doubt, Dreyer stays on her features, to see her turmoil turn to triumph as if she constantly reminds herself of God’s love.

There is only one moment where Joan does resign to her despair, which is when she is shown the stake she is to be burned at if she doesn’t sign a confession she is a heretic. Dreyer is unrelenting in cross cutting her reaction to images of skulls, decay, and allusions of death which she cannot escape. To me it’s perhaps the most powerful moment as Joan sees how her physical form will turn to ashes and her body will turn to nothing. It’s a frightening revelation, and she is seen as utterly beside herself, overcome with doub and despair. It is here, she is forced to sign a confession which will save her life, but will make her condemn her personal beliefs. Even though her moment of weakness does make her resolve to sign the confession, she quickly recants and even though the action has sealed her fate, she is comforted to be back in God’s grace.

Although the practice of dying for your religion isn’t really done as often as it was back in Joan’s day, the idea of one’s faith being brought to the edge like that seems unfathomable. It’s the ultimate test, and for Christians, it would seem Joan passed it with flying colours. But it begs the question what makes a person do that? The Passion of Joan of Arc is a very pious film, it stays with Joan and her struggles throughout. The tight close ups and dynamic camera angles certainly make it a somewhat claustrophobic film, and it doesn’t relent. The tense moments near the end as we are witness to her flesh burning at the stake has always stayed with me as one of the most harrowing scenes ever put on celluloid. We witness she has fulfilled her commitment to God as she sees it, and has died a martyr. Her charred corpse is engulfed in flames, the people rise up against her persecutors, and even some of the people responsible for her death feel they have just killed a Saint.

Throughout her trials, we get the sense that God has never left Joan, as we see the sympathetic monk Jean Massieu holding a cross for her to see during her execution. It remains constant, and throughout the film, Dreyer gives visual references of the cross near Joan as she feels God being ever present, the only thing she can rely on in her darkest hour. The film isn’t there to question her faith or her choices, but rather it celebrates her. At the end of the film, we don’t see Joan ascend to heaven, but the film makes it clear that her soul is in tact and she left the Earthly plain with a clear conscience, which transforms her act into something transcendent.

The story of Joan of Arc is a parallel to that of Jesus, we see it in the way she is treated and tortured, as a test of her faith. Joan was accused of blasphemy afterall, just as Jesus was accused as a false prophet, yet in the Christian religion, she is now seen as a Saint, and her trial was later overturned when the evidence became clear she was innocent. Would this have happened had Joan relented and signed a confession to save her own life? Perhaps not, as history has the tendency to judge people of their actions which may define them after death.

Perhaps this is what God wanted from Joan, so maybe she was right, she certainly believed she was. If anything she could be seen as an inspiration, and her motives may prove to be inconceivable to some. Today, it’s difficult to think of God asking anyone for such a sacrifice, yet I have met people who believe their lives are guided by his word. They have made sacrifices and prayed for guidance in order to live the good Christian life. I feel my Uncle was one of these people, and though it’s tempting to criticize that way of life, I prefer to look at it with admiration and curiosity.

Knowing my family history, particularly on my mom’s side, it’s easy to approach any sort of Christian faith with hesitation, since I was privy to certain lies which had great consequences. These consequences caused a rift in my family and a certain estrangement towards others. Faith is a tricky thing, but it’s also a difficult thing to obtain. For Joan, it was certainly something you could see she struggled with, but she ultimately kept it. For others, it may be harder to obtain, they may lose their faith and never get it back again. It may cause them to feel lost and afraid, but perhaps it may lead to a different type of enlightenment. I’m hesitant to discuss it further since I’m no expert on the subject.

What I can say about myself is I’m not sure I carried with me a very strong faith. I often doubt myself, and I doubt others who I feel I can’t rely on. For Christians, God has become that constant they can depend on, and no matter what happens, they have put their life in his guidance. It’s a giant leap to give yourself to such things, it’s a sacrifice and you may not know you are right until after you die. I’m still working on myself, yet I don’t forget God. I like to have faith, and I would like to think that there is salvation with leading the good life we are taught, but I’m still figuring it out.

I have no doubt, my Uncle left this Earth knowing he had a good life. At the funeral they had a picture of him with his very open smile which is probably the thing I remember most about him. When I saw that picture, I saw a man fully satisfied with his life and his choices. It’s the type of contentment perhaps we all long for. I’m sure my Uncle had his doubts from time to time, but he filled it with love, family, and friends. There was a purpose with his life. In a way it isn’t far off from what Joan of Arc was striving for. She saw God as the way and the light, and in the end she acheived that goal.

This type of living is what one might call not living for yourself, but rather living for something else you believe is bigger than yourself. Perhaps that is what it takes to be happy, having that type of faith. Who’s to know, things still remain uncertain, and life’s a mystery, but perhaps that leap is worth it.

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