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The Passion Of Joan Of Arc  

I must admit right here that I've never viewed a silent film from front to back. No Chaplin, no Keaton, no Erich Von Stroheim, nothing. So it was a bit daunting to see Carl Dreyer`s The Passion of Joan of Arc. This was made in 1928, and is considered one of the greatest of silent movies, and, indeed, all of film. The story, of course, is about the trial of a peasant woman named Joan, who in the 1430's was charged with blasphemy. Joan believes God is speaking to her, and telling her to behave certain ways, etc. For much of the trial, she is defiant against persecution. And, as was standard practise, she dies for that defiance.

A well-known aspect of this movie is the close-ups of the faces which dominate the film's appearance. Since this is a silent film, faces must tell everything. And they do. Joan`s face reveals to us the strong conviction interspersed with equally strong naivety. She certainly does not seem like a woman who could actually harm anyone, with her wide eyes, and round, unadorned face, yet she is treated like America`s latest serial killer. She is constantly charged with horrible offenses when certain facts on her life are brought out, like.......the fact that she wears men`s clothing! ("An immodest attire hateful to God!!") And the fact she believes she is hearing voices of God make the judges claim Satan is in fact trying to trick her into turning away from the Catholic Church.

There is a somewhat predatory business-like attitude to this. The eagerness in which the judges want to dispatch of Joan is similar to a company using predatory, subversive tactics to weed out the competition (Microsoft, anyone?). In the case of the church, if they have competition from a lowly peasant woman, that means perhaps the flock may decide to change sides and buy her "product", so to speak, depriving the old-line of their monopoly. And so she must be discredited and silenced before she undermines the supreme authority the Church has always had. And this makes sense when you consider that the Catholic Church would have been the supreme authority. To discredit doctrine is akin to treason. (Just as, I suppose, I discrediting Bill Gates could get me in trouble.)

Now this theory comes from a mind which believes religion is an utterly fantastical, impractical, and possibly dangerous, concept. You might believe Joan is a heroine, a woman who values the individual pursuit of spirituality, against the tyranny of the church. I, on the other hand, would believe the whole lot of them are foolish, placing such high importance on doctrine created by (take your pick) madmen, the gullible, con-men, power-seekers, bigots, misogynists, and people who take their fictional creations seriously. The tragedy is that everybody in this movie is absolutely insane! To actually kill people because you, in essence, really, really like this one particular book, is about the same equivalent to if I burnt my friend`s house down, or worse, because she had the gall to claim Stanley Kubrick`s Eyes Wide Shut is nothing but pornography. Sure, it`s a foolish claim, and Kubrick was a genius, but it`s not exactly the unbendable truth. 2001 was just written by some guy, just as The Bible was written by a bunch of guys. To not be allowed to criticise or have different feelings over any work, or to even disregard it, without being threatened is pretty scary stuff.

And at the same time, Joan doesn't strike me as a person I`d want to spend more than five minutes with. While she is certainly very harmless, nowadays she`d be just strange, with equally peculiar habits. And no matter how much sympathy you have for her, if you are sensible, you won`t just fall on your knees and believe because she tells you she wants to be martyred. You would think she was suicidal, and needs to seek help.

Yet I still think the film works, because it does show us how things were back in those bad old days. For us, it`s a history lesson on the arrogance of the church. No sensible person would want Joan killed for any reason; she's quiet, unassuming, etc. If she wants to believe God's speaking to her, let her about her business. She`s not bugging anyone.

The film also works because of its imagery, a silent film's main attribute. No makeup was used in the production, which give a more intense appearance in the actors. The old judges look menacing, with their evil eyes and craggy faces, and we know they don`t want to give up their senority. It also helps too that we see the judges looking down on her. Joan, as well, looks more genuine, for she looks like the plain, common person she is. Other numerous images are just as effective with or without sound, and any open-minded person should at least try to view what is considered the most celebrated of silent films.

David Macdonald

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