On May 30, Joan of Arc’s feast day — also the day she was burned at the stake in 1431 — I watched the great 1928 silent film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” for the first time at the historical Music Box theater in Chicago. The silent film was accompanied by an original 80-minute instrumental soundtrack performed live that evening by the 1990s indie rock band Joan of Arc. With the facial expressions of actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti, who plays Joan of Arc, and the whole disturbing story of her execution, the dark, looping, gritty, flowering electric guitar riffs were especially haunting.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and came out eight years after Joan’s official canonization in 1920. It retells the 1431 trial of St. Joan of Arc based on the recorded minutes of the trial, a firsthand manuscript held at the National Archives of France. Most of the dialogue in the film is taken directly from the manuscript.
The film takes place entirely at the King of England’s military headquarters in France after Joan has been captured. It begins with church authority figures and soldiers questioning her. Falconetti has the most harrowing facial expressions depicting, at different moments, crushing horror, ecstasy, emotional intensity, subtle cunning and wide, wrenching eyes that speak of a 19 year old. Even through torture, she never relinquishes her trust in, and love of, God, as some moments from the film speak to.
Judge (mockingly): “Has God made you promises?”
Joan, wide eyed with fear: “That has nothing to do with this trial.”
Judge: “Shouldn’t we let the judges decide that? Should we put this question to a vote?”
[all the men raise their hands]
Judge: “So! What has God promised you?”
Joan replies to a judge speaking of the Church abandoning her, causing her to be alone: “Yes, alone. Alone with God!”
Joan, in prison after she was coerced into signing a document admitting that she was led by the devil: “I only said yes because I was afraid of the fire — for that, I betrayed God.”
Joan replies to a judge asking if she is in the state of grace: “If I am, may God keep me there! If I am not, may God grant it to me!”
Joan: “I love and serve God with all my heart.”
The priests and soldiers speak to Joan, dressed as a man in battle: “Joan, dress a woman and go to Mass, and we won’t kill you.”
Joan replies: “No. I would be betraying God.”
This, to me, says so much about authenticity. It also says something about queerness — queerness as refusing to play into the empire’s power and rules over one’s body, one’s own dignity. Queerness as saying: “I am God’s. Laws and church doctrine do not speak for me. God speaks for me.” I think of Joan’s story, and I think of terrifying anti-LGBTQ+ laws being passed right now in many states in the U.S. that are dehumanizing and discriminatory and act against God-given human dignity. Many of these laws are written and passed in the name of God. I think of Joan’s story and I think of all the people who are abused by those with spiritual authority who misuse their power.
In the late 1920s, at the time this film came out, whole scenes were cut and censored by Cardinal Louis-Ernest Dubois, the archbishop of Paris. Church authority figures are abusive and mocking in the film, and I think, perhaps, they should also be depicted that way in the original story of Joan of Arc. The undertones of the film are really about resisting abusive authority and following one’s conscience in relationship with God. Joan being a recognized saint in the Catholic Church is, I think, some sort of creative resistance from the inside.
What Joan of Arc’s story reminds me is that the way God lives in me and loves me is personal and real. Not to reduce it down to a spirituality of my “personal relationship with Jesus” being the foundation of everything I do, but that my love for Jesus bleeds into everything, even though it’s really hard to claim sometimes when the Church acts in ways that oppose love. It can lead to burnout, to doubting. Yet Joan refused to fit into norms and conventions because of her own intimate relationship with God. “I am alone, yes, alone with God.” What more do I need?
The film ends with Joan being tied to the stake, as flames begin to engulf her. What follows is a riot in town square, and one woman cries, “You have burned a saint!”
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” is a film I can’t stop thinking about. In the face of horrific acts of violence, words fail. Yet Joan’s engulfing sense of trust in herself and in the God she loves spoke for itself, even in that silence, even when she was simply a scared teenager who felt alone.
Cassidy Klein is an essayist, journalist and creative writer based in Chicago, Illinois. She grew up in Denver, Colorado, and attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California, to study journalism and philosophy. After college Cassidy moved to Washington, D.C. for a fellowship with Sojourners Magazine, where she worked as an editorial assistant. Now in Chicago, she lives at The Fireplace, a community of artists, activists and Catholic sisters. She is a freelance writer, editor and assistant with adults with intellectual disabilities at L’Arche Chicago. Find more of her work at cassidyrklein.weebly.com.