Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc is unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. It is often said that the film is made up entirely of close ups. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is certainly accurate to say that Dreyer eschews the visual grammar of traditional filmmaking.
In most movies, a scene will begin with a wide shot to establish the setting so that, when the scene moves to close-ups, the viewer understands where the characters are standing in relationship to each other within the set. But in Joan, Dreyer gives us no establishing shots, and we never have a sense of space. (It doesn’t help that the film’s set is highly expressionistic and minimalist in design.) We’re left instead with a disorienting series of images, the vast majority of which are close-ups of faces. Our experience as viewers is almost closer to flipping through a photo album than watching a movie.
Needless to say, you can’t watch Joan the same way you’d watch a normal Hollywood movie. If you watch it for the story, for example, you’ll be disappointed. Joan is on trial for heresy; she refuses to recant; she is burnt at the stake. That’s all that happens. The film isn’t about the plot. If the film is about anything, it is about Maria Falconetti’s face (the actress who plays Joan).
One helpful way into this unusual viewing experience is to approach the film the way you would look at a painting. In fact, I suggest the closest artistic analogy for the film is the Eastern Orthodox tradition of paintings known as “icons”. Dreyer himself called the effect he was aiming at “realized mysticism”, by which I think he meant the embodiment of spiritual truth in realistic imagery. This embodiment (or incarnation) of the spiritual in the physical – especially the physical representation of the human face, abstracted from the spatial setting of its minimal background – is what Christian iconography aims at. Along these lines, then, watching the film can become a kind of prayer or communion with God.
In his book Praying With Icons Orthodox writer, Jim Forest explains the concept of an icon: “The icon is not an end in itself but assists us in going beyond what can be seen with our physical eyes into the realm of mystical experience.” That’s why, Forest explains, in a typical icon, “There is either nothing at all in the background or, if a setting is required, it is rendered in the simplest, most austere manner” – just like The Passion of Joan of Arc. Russian iconographer Leonid Ouspensky’s description of Orthodox iconography could have been written about Joan: “The image is reduced to a minimum of detail and a maximum of expressiveness.” Also recalling Joan, Forest emphasizes the role of the face in iconography:
“Gazing at the face, we are drawn especially into the eyes, the windows of the soul. The enlightened eyes communicate wisdom, insight, and heightened perception. Meeting the Savior and the saints face-to-face, we find ourselves in a relationship of communion.”
Twentieth-century Catholic mystic Thomas Merton elaborates on this theme of icon-aided communion, pointing out that ultimately it is always Christ that we experience, even in an icon of a saint like Joan of Arc:
“What one ‘sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the apostles on down.”
I challenge you to approach The Passion of Joan of Arc in a spirit of prayer, open to God’s presence. Inscribed in light and moving shadows on a screen you may find a trace of God’s glory in this utterly unique piece of cinema about the face of an utterly unique human being.