Tuesday’s Overlooked Films: The Passion of Joan of Arc

I kicked off the Visualising Medieval Women course with Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc; yes, a daring choice as I could more or less assume that none of my students had ever seen a silent film. But after showing them Terry Jones’ “The Damsel” episode from Medieval Lives, I wanted to hammer home the point that Joan was not “burnt as a witch” but for usurping male clothes and by implication, a male role, which gave suitable grounds in what was really a political battle. Witch burning, by the by, is from the so-called age of Enlightenment the so-called Renaissance gave us — just another myth about the Middle Ages.

Dreyer’s film — like all his work — is richly imagined and visually stunning. The Criterion DVD features the evocative “Voices of Light,” a choral and orchestral work composed by Richard Einhorn and performed by the wonderful Anonymous 4 and the Radio Netherlands Philharmonic and Choir. This edition of the long-thought-to-be-lost film came when a complete version was located in a Norwegian mental institute in 1981.

Dreyer’s vision is always arresting. For a film awash in white, it often seems so dark. Renée Falconetti’s Joan offers a compelling vision of a suffering young woman who nonetheless stubbornly fights for her beliefs against harsh treatment. We examined how the internal space of the trial (ecclesiastic, confined and male) suddenly explodes into the public space (cacophonous, open and mostly female). Good to see a young Antonin Artaud as a sympathetic priest; practising for that theatre of cruelty, eh?

See all the recommendations for overlooked media at Sweet Freedom.