Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Saint Joan

I first watched Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc in the late 1950s as a young man discovering the cinema in a reflective, intellectual way. As someone who had grown up with the Three Stooges and Gabby Hayes, I was riveted by what I saw. It was the beginning of a long love affair with Truffaut, Goddard, Bergman, Fellini, Kurasawa, and all the other auteurs who turned the 60s into a magical decade of the cinema. This was not cinema as entertainment, but as food for the mind. (Of course, the best cinema is both.)

I have just watched Joan again in a new version digitally-restored from the only known intact original print, discovered in a closet in Norway in 1981. Much of it is brilliant. Some of it is silly. But -- ah! - those eyes of Renee Falconetti, the actress who played the Maid of Orleans. No wonder I was stricken as a young man.

In the new cut, Falconetti is as striking as ever. But what most intrigues me now is the way Dreyer used human faces in unrelenting close-ups to express what in the 14th century was thought to be the unrelenting war of God and Satan for possession of human souls. The colossal apparatus of Canon Law and church bureaucracy, the giving and withholding of the sacraments, the instruments of torture, the blood, the tears, the faggots waiting at the stake, the flames and smoke: all ostensibly directed to a single purpose -- the eternal salvation of Joan's immortal soul. "The Church is merciful," says one of her tormentors in the film, "it always welcomes the misguided lamb."

Joan was burned in Rouen, France, in 1431, forty-two years before the birth of Copernicus, one-hundred-and-thirty-three years before the birth of Galileo, and five centuries before I was taught in school that God and Satan are contesting for my immortal soul and that I should be as frightened as was Joan that I'll end up in the fire that burns forever. The vast majority of people still believe in heaven, and many will blow themselves up or bomb their neighbors to get there.

Joan was an uneducated peasant girl who quite reasonably believed the theology of her time and place. As Dreyer portrays her, she is brave and patriotic -- and painfully, endearingly human. It would be nice to think that she is now blissfully residing in Paradise. At least she achieved a kind of cinematic immortality.