Carl Theodor Dreyer’s depiction of the trial of Joan of Arc delves into themes of faith, conviction and persecution. While rooted in historical events, the film’s style heightens and elevates the psychological suffering, the religious ideas and the positions of power and control. The result is a film that wears its ideas on its sleeve and is much richer for it.
The film follows the historical trial of Joan of Arc (Maria Falconetti) for the claims of heresy against the Church. Throughout the film, the young Joan is questioned by leaders of the church about her claims that God spoke to her and that she saw the Virgin Mary. While these claims might have implications for the beliefs of these religious leaders, more than anything else, it threatens their power as the intermediaries between God and the people.
The Passion of Joan of Arc exposes the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. Here, men professing to be Christians go about abusing a young woman through interrogations intended to psychologically wear her down. When these measures fail, they turn to the threat of physical violence, taking her to a dungeon. What sort of religious person has a dungeon?
They even go so far as to use communion as a way to extort Joan, denying it to her unless she confesses. These men will pervert their own system of religion and use any means they can to extort those beneath them. Dreyer shows how systems of power and religion combined can be used to horrible ends, even oppressing those who profess to believe in the same God.
In contrast, Joan is able to demonstrate belief and conviction in the face of such oppression. Joan professes miraculous things, that God divinely spoke to her, which justifies her actions. The film doesn’t explore the veracity of these claims, even though it’s the pivotal point on which the film moves. Instead, it demonstrates her willingness to cling to her convictions in spite of persecution.
Joan’s persecution and suffering is often paralleled with the suffering of Jesus. The entire proceedings parallel Jesus’ own trial before the religious leaders of his day. She’s given a makeshift crown and scepter as if a king and mocked by her guards. There is also Maria Falconetti’s performance. She often strikes poses that evoke famous and iconic paintings of Jesus.
But the film is not triumphant and unwavering. Eventually, Joan signs a confession. She quickly redacts it, saying she was falsely coerced into signing it. The film doesn’t expect conviction to be unwavering. There will be moments of doubt, moments where faith is questioned. These failures will come from even the most faithful. Dreyer is not afraid to present this bit of history as a reminder of the fallibility of humans.
While these themes gain definition in the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition, these are universal ideas about the abuse of power, the trial of suffering and the strength of one’s own convictions. Everyone has beliefs, but under stress, will one stand up to those convictions in the face of oppression? And is one willing to die for what they believe? Like Joan, no one may know the strength of their convictions until they are taken to trial, and not everyone may be able to carry the full burden of being persecuted – to the point of death – without succumbing to doubt.