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Nouri Sheibani

‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer is undoubtedly one of the best films I have ever watched.  Created using the transcripts of the actual trial of Joan of Arc, it depicts the tormenting story of Joan, the woman who dressed as a man to lead France to victory in battle against the English. It characterises how she was put on trial for heresy against the church and burnt at stake at the tender age of 19.

Although Dreyer hadn’t made many films prior to The Passion of Joan of Arc, he decided to go against the norm, and make a film unlike any before (or even after) it.  This was achieved by his emphasis on the characters as the focal point of the plot, rather than the story itself.  This was done in medias res, as at the start of the film the audience is given no context on who Joan of Arc was and what she did prior to the trial. This allows the clergy and Joan herself to receive all the viewer’s attention, and the emotions and motivations of the characters become the centre of Dreyer’s vision.

The film is most famous for one of the ways in which the director explored the characters’ emotions: the use of close-up shots.  Of the 1,500 shots used in the movie, around 80% are single-face close-ups.  In cinema, a close up is often used to highlight the emotion of a character by focusing on their facial expressions. Typically, an overuse of this shot causes it to lose its effect.  However, The Passion of Joan of Arc overcomes this a few ways.  Firstly, by having so many close-ups – more than an excessive amount – it engrains the image of Joan’s face deeply into the viewer’s mind. This is done to the extent that having shots which aren’t close-ups causes the viewer to crave for the close-up of Joan to come back, so that they can be re-engulfed into the story.  Secondly, Maria Falconetti’s performance as Joan is so very beautifully executed (some have said it is the greatest example of acting ever shown in cinema). Her face is one of such deep and changing emotions, one simply cannot get tired of it.  Lastly, by using no makeup for any character in the film, Dreyer creates faces which are much more torn and stark-looking than any other film, due to the inherent detail and wear naturally painted onto the unaltered human face.

One of the most interesting effects of the close-up shot in the film is to isolate the characters.  When all the viewers are able to see is the face of the Joan on a white background, the audience to understand her feelings of loneliness in the world she is trapped in, as she feels all is pitted against her.  Having the audience truly resonate with what the character is feeling is the primary goal of a movie like this, and the close-up is a perfect door to this.  Furthermore, a film primarily composed of close-ups makes any change to the environment of the shots possess much greater impact.  For example, by having the Clergy primarily filmed from below using harsh light, it makes them seem powerful, menacing, and scary; conversely, having Joan usually filmed from a higher angle with softer light makes her seem vulnerable, stricken, and enlightened.  Having these close-ups, which reflect the on-screen emotions back at the viewer, creates a space for two of my favourite shots of the film.  The first is when a close-up of Joan is interrupted by the two arms of certain priests mocking her, by placing a crown and broken arrow in her hand. She then looks up, as if asking whether she did her duty as a prophet or not, in an instance of struggle.  The second, in that same vein, is a hard-hitting close-up of her crying after being tortured and bullied by the clergy. The second shot gave me proof that the close-ups were as impactful as I thought they were - as just this shot alone almost rendered in me a deeper sadness and gut emotional feeling than the wide shots of her being burnt at stake at the end of the film did.

Finally, what always amazes me is how the film is so wonderful even though it lacks sound and colour.  However, now I realise that unlike almost any other film, it is actually better without colour and sound.  This is because, just like wide shots and clean faces made-up, additional factors like colour and sound would only distract from the raw emotion and depth of the characters which I am supposed to understand whilst watching this film.

The Passion of Joan of Arc: News Articles
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