I chose Joan of Arc as the first film I would watch because I’ve long heard that it is a groundbreaking work of visual storytelling and performance, two qualities I value greatly in film. However, I never expected how eerily relevant it would be to today and what’s been happening with the #metoo movement and the response to it. We begin with Joan on trial and being judged by a panel of religious old men as to the veracity of her story. It couldn’t help but evoke the image of the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Throughout history women have been subjected to this cold reality of being harshly judged by a cabal of old men on everything from their appearance, to their actions, to their words, all the way to the core of who they are as a woman. And this classically absurd image of a group of unattractive old men, raised up onto a higher level so they can look down on the woman they are judging, commenting on her appearance and questioning every detail of her story, is so perfectly captured in these opening scenes of The Passion of Joan of Arc.
It can take a few minutes the adjust to the style and pace of this silent era film which uses simple text on a black background to convey dialogue between scenes, but once you settle into the different rhythm it is easy to get absorbed by the emotional drama of the story. This is heightened by the intimate closeups that are used constantly throughout this film, especially on the face of Maria Falconetti’s accused Joan. The lighting and cinematography is so impeccable in these shots that her face almost shines and we can see every emotion and every doubt that she experiences in her trial and punishment. I will venture a guess that this was the first film in history to use such an intimate style of closeups as a major feature of the storytelling, and it is a risk that really pays off, thanks in large part to Falconetti’s performance. We see her always looking up at her judges, as the camera also looks up at these men looking down on her and the viewer, judging her and judging us too for being aligned with her. There is no escape from her predicament for the audience, no relief from the endless pressure and prodding by the judges, instead we are forced to wrestle with the magnitude of her struggle in a very confronting way.
And with that I must return to the parallels between the character of Joan and the universal struggle of women to be believed when they share their truth, especially when it comes to an issue that is challenging to the status quo of a male-dominated society. Every answer Joan gives to the judges is followed by a question intended to undercut her response and undermine her credibility. We see this time and again in public discourse with sexual assault victims, and we see it in a hearing like the one Dr. Ford took part in. Of course there has been a lot of progress made between then and now, but we can still do a whole lot better. I certainly believe we can reach a place of empathy, belief, and affirmation of women that can change the culture and change the way men think about their relationship to women in the world. And I think watching films like The Passion of Joan of Arc that do a good job of putting the viewer’s feelings and experiences in alignment with the female victim of persecution can help bring about that change.
Joan is a true believer in God. Her understanding of God and his message is in direct opposition to the leaders of the Church who are judging her crimes. Thus God plays a crucial role in her story. I have never had a personal relationship with God nor have I needed his word to guide me. I think this is the case with many people today, especially younger generations. However, I think we all have a sense of Justice and a faith that it will be carried out over the long arc of history. Joan uses God as her source of strength to speak out against the Church and speak up for the French people. We use our faith in Justice to speak out against those in power who abuse that power, like the men in power who want to silence women speaking out about sexual assault. But God and Justice are both intangible, we can neither see nor touch them. So everyone can interpret them in their own way and argue with one another over who is right. And when your sense of God or Justice does not agree with that of those in power, they will do anything to silence or discredit you. It is the very men who represent God that discredit and punish Joan for her beliefs. And it is the highest court of Justice in America where Brett Kavanaugh was placed by the men who tried to silence and discredit Dr. Ford.
So where does this all take us? For Joan, it took her to the stakes to be burned in public as warning not to speak out against the Church. For Dr. Ford, it put her abuser on the Supreme Court in a position to make future legal decisions that could affect a women’s rights regarding her own body and how America adjudicates sexual assault cases in the future, which I could argue is also a message to women to think twice before speaking out in public against powerful men. For the rest of us, it is hard to say where we go. While both God and Justice can give faith and hope to victims who suffer these horrendous ordeals, and both can serve as a source of strength and inspiration within people who doggedly push for and pursue systemic change, they are not enough. The cold realities of the world require us to keep pushing for systemic change and cultural evolution, because if no one pushes, the world will never move. And while God and Justice may serve some in this pursuit, they are not prerequisites for creating change. Dialogue, challenging those in power, speaking our truth, listening to others, and trying to extend empathy and understanding to even those most opposed to our beliefs so that they may do the same, these are the tools we all must use, regardless of our belief in God or Justice.
Joan’s faith in God moved her to act, but it was belief in her story and empathy for her plight and fate that gave many more people in France strength and inspiration. I don’t know if Dr. Ford, or any of the other accusers that have come forward en masse during the #metoo movement, came forward out of a sense of Justice for themselves and other women, but whatever their source of strength to endure the public backlash, the simple act of speaking up and speaking out has inspired and given hope to millions of women that change can come. The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh was a disheartening outcome for many, just like Joan’s death was for the people of France. It’s what we do in response to that outcome and future outcomes that determines what change will come.