As many of you know, I am utterly intrigued with silent films whose message transcends time and space. The first time I watched this film, I became absolutely fascinated with both the cinematography and the musical score in light of the Joan of Arc story.

The movie itself is a source of triple fascination for me. Besides the story of St. Joan herself, the story behind the movie’s production is also a passion story. Director Carl Dreyer, in order to maximize its cinematographic effect, makes the film almost entirely of head shots, in which the characters are very obviously without makeup, in order to enhance the realism within the story. He treated his leading actress, Maria Falconetti, quite shabbily in order to get the desired tragic effect of St. Joan’s story. Falconetti endured kneeling on cold stone floors for long periods of time and periods of fasting to make her character more realistic. Real languishing and pain show in her eyes, in sharp contrast to the cruel countenances of her tormentors, and the sympathetic faces of her faithful followers.

The film’s own birth is shrouded in tragedy, as two fires occurred during its production and editing process–an interesting aside considering St. Joan was burned at the stake!

Additionally, it is a “resurrection story” of sorts, as the film disappeared for many years, believed lost to the ravages of time. A single copy was discovered in a janitor’s closet in a mental institution in Oslo, Norway, in 1981, and all subsequent prints derive from this copy of the film. Dreyer died in 1968 thinking that the bulk of his film was lost–only fragmented bits of it had seemingly survived.

The musical score is a modern enhancement to the film. No evidence exists that Dreyer had selected an “official” musical score for the film. Most theaters at the time of the original release of the film would have relied on the talents of their local musicians/piano player to create an arrangement (a common practice in the silent era.) It’s interesting to think that one’s movie experience back then was not as homogenized as what we are used to–seeing the movie in different locations would create a different movie-going experience. (In a spiritual vein, isn’t that a little how we understand the Bible or the historical stories of our faith?)

But after the film was rediscovered, the version now available features a musical score from 1994, Richard Einhorn’s 1994 oratorio Voices of Light. When this film is shown in theaters now as an “art film,” (particularly on college campuses), it is often with a live score, featuring local singers. The sung text in the oratorio includes both writings with a feminist theme, and a misogynistic theme.

The film crunches the 29 sessions of St. Joan’s trial into a single trial, and the effect is the sense that there is a rush to justice to execute a saint. She speaks very little during all this, but her heavenward-cast eyes and her tears speak volumes. The camera sequences are edited in such a way the viewers gaze goes back and forth quickly between St. Joan and the angry mob, the devoted followers, the judges and the religious authorities. Her impending doom builds during the music. The execution scene is graphic and frenzied, with the onlookers breaking out in a mob, and the soldiers rushing in to put the mob down. Some of the sequences move back and forth to the faces of peasant children–some nursing on their mother’s breast, some crying near their fallen parents after the mob erupts.

For me, knowing all these back stories only enhances my take on the spiritual message of this movie. It’s a passionate look at a young woman with a calling–a calling that, no matter what one thinks about the true historical story of St. Joan, resonates with anyone who has ever felt “called by God” for far less. Essentially none of us will ever feel called to lead an army to do the will of God, but the film touches about both the ecstasy and misery that accompanies anything that God calls us to do, no matter how big or how small. This is exemplified in a short interchange in the film between Joan and one of her judges:

Judge: “Has God promised you things?”
Joan: “That has nothing to do with this trial!”

Now, it would be a little of a walk on the psychotic side for any of us who have felt any sort of calling to liken ourselves to St. Joan, but because her story is so in the extreme, it lays bare the elements of what any of us feel in a “calling”, big and small. On the positive side, there’s the sense that we are an agent of something bigger than ourselves, the sense that to follow the call is to engage in “right action” for our lives, and the sense that others will see it in us, and be supportive. On the negative side, we experience the fact some others see it, but they don’t like it. It represents loss and grief to the “you” they once thought they knew, and it means they have to adjust without you in your former state. We experience doubt. The doubt might be “is this really a call or am I just being narcissistic here?” “I’m not sure I can do this; I might fail.” “Have I lost my mind?” We feel anguish if we resist the call, and sometimes movement comes only as a result of relieving the anguish.

In short, it’s easy to talk about the good stuff to others, but very hard to be open about the hard stuff.

These feelings, in various amounts, are present in all “callings,” whether they are big or little, religious or secular. They can be as big as a calling to one’s lay profession, choosing one’s life partner or a call to religious ordination. They can be as small as changing a minor detail of how we deal day to day with a loved one, to give more money to charity or church, or to create more “down time” to recharge and restructure our lives. Yet they all contain varying amounts of these conflicting feelings.

The other thing that struck me in this movie is the use of holy objects–namely the cross–as an object of yearning for St. Joan. In the trial sequences, the fast paced, always changing camera views also dart back and forth to crosses–a cross atop a church barely visible from a rock wall, the crosses on the bishop inquisitors, a cross interposed with a scene showing a bare skull with a worm crawling out of the skull’s eye socket. Just before she is burned at the stake, she is given a large cross to hold before being taken off to be burned. She wraps both her arms around the cross and cradles it lovingly. If only all of us could embrace God’s will so lovingly and with such indifference to what the world thinks of us in our various callings–and it’s a safe bet that what we fear is far less consequential than being burned at the stake!

Anyone who is exploring a thought of any size of “What does God want for me–what does God want me to do about (fill in the blank),” ought to watch this film. Try not to watch it for the story line, but watch it in a way where the goal is to feel what is expressed in the numerous faces. My guess is it will allow similar clarity of the confusing aspects of one’s calling to rise with a different sort of clarity.