‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928) as a feminist meditation on will and survival

By Casey Campbell

There are few faces more famous in early silent cinema than that of Renée Jeanne Falconetti. With her emotive eyes and captivating stare, Falconetti’s portrayal of Joan of Arc from the 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc remains heads above her contemporaries and still evokes the human side of a canonized legend.

The film could have been called The Trial of Joan of Arc and it would have made sense, given the attention it gives to the questions she is asked for the entire runtime; though Passion is a more apt title. She bleeds hope and divinity. She knows that God will save her, no matter the outcome of her trial. Her passion spills through in every close-up shot, and tears that fall from her expressive eyes. Her willpower wins out in the end, even if it means losing her life.

Renée Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

The film captures an essence of toxic masculinity that fits with today’s social movements in Hollywood, specifically in dealing with the sex abuse from many men in the industry. Fittingly enough, the historical Joan donned mens clothing as a way to ward off rape. She was put on trial by a band of clergymen, holding themselves to a higher esteem than Joan. She claimed to be sent from God, and was tried for heresy and cross-dressing. She was then intimidated into confessing, through threatening torture and death.

Joan presents an unflinching determination, utterly human and willed by the divine. She signs a confessional, though only after being brought before a stake to be burned alive in front of an audience. Sitting in her cell after her atonement, she notices the silhouette of barred windows making a cross on her floor. The cross reinvigorates her, and she calls for the judges. She knows her death will follow, yet speaks up anyway.

Renée Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Her death scene features beautifully juxtaposed shots of the lead bound to a wooden pillar awaiting her death, and a baby suckling it’s mothers breast. Feminine strength is shown in the form of a loving mother and a woman staring down death. It’s also shown through Joan succinctly answering the overbearing questions and demands of men throughout.

The film was made almost 90 years ago, and it’s themes of feminism matter as much now as they did then. The raw emotion of Falconetti and the gorgeous photography from Rudolph Maté elevate this silent historical film into a deep meditation on what it means to be strong and female in a male-dominated world.

Buy here: The Passion of Joan of Arc (The Criterion Collection)

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