Cast: Renee Jeanne Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Andre Berley, Maurice Schutz
SUMMARY: This film is based on the actual transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial in Normandy; she has already been captured by the English when the film starts. Joan led French forces in the Hundred Years’ War, in which English and French forces fought for control of France. After being captured, she faces interrogation by French priests that are loyal to the English. On May 30, 1431, Joan is brought before the French clerical court. She is questioned about her motivations for fighting, as well as for dressing like a man. When Joan (Renee Jeanne Falconetti) states that God told her to lead the French, she is questioned about how God appeared to her: when they learn she saw an angel, they want to know what the angel looked like. Ultimately, they decide that the appearing angel was Satan, not St. Michael. Despite their leading questions and attempts to convince her that she is wrong, Joan refuses to give in or admit guilt. A small number of the clerics come to believe that Joan truly is a saint, and refuse to participate any further.
When they cannot evoke a confession, the remaining clerics try to trick Joan. They present her with a (fake) letter signed by the King of France; Joan cannot read, and so has to believe the priests who tell her what it says. The letter supposedly says to trust the priests, but Joan still refuses to admit that she has done anything wrong. She is then taken to the torture chamber. When she sees the torture devices, Joan faints and is taken to another room. She is next threatened with being burned at the stake, and Joan finally crumbles. She agrees to sign a confession, although a priest has to help her write her name. She is sentenced to life in prison, and her head is shaved. However, Joan suddenly decides that by signing the confession she has gone against God, and demands to have it revoked. With her confession recanted, she is sentenced to death by being burned at the stake. By this time, a number of local people have gathered around the room where the trial is held, and have been swayed by Joan’s courage. Joan is tied to the stake and the fire is lit; as she dies, the crowd erupts into tears and violence and lash out at the guards.
MY TAKE: I have always been fascinated by the story of Joan of Arc, because it’s so unusual. She was really young when she decided (after having a vision from God) to join the French army; somehow, despite her gender and age, she moved into a position of great power and wound up leading troops. She was one of the few people having success against the English, who naturally got pissed and wanted to kill her. Once she was captured, I don’t think anybody had any doubts about what would happen to her. When she signs the confession, they sentence her to life in prison, but I suspect that this would be an extremely harsh life that would result in death pretty quickly. However, it was really a no-win situation for the English: if they kill her immediately, like really happened, she becomes a martyr; if they keep her in prison for a really long time, she becomes a beacon of hope and inspiration, sort of like Nelson Mandela. Like I mentioned in the summary, this movie is based on the actual record of Joan’s trial, particularly in what was said during the questioning. If it weren’t so serious, these would be kind of funny — they ask her several times what St. Michael looked like, and ultimately determine that it was really Satan. How in the world would they know what St. Michael, or Satan for that matter, looked like? It’s a totally asinine question, sort of like those tests they used in witch-hunts. There is no way to win/answer correctly. Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s performance as Joan, and the movie in general, has received a ton of praise over the years, but frankly I found the movie rather dull and Falconetti sort of annoying. It seems like all she does is open her eyes really wide and act sort of crazy. I’m sure the fear she showed was accurate, but when she’s in the same state for an hour and a half, it gets tiring. I thought at some point that she would either get angry or resign herself to her fate and find peace. Most of the movie focuses on the interrogation of Joan, and this seems to drag on forever. The priests try repeatedly to get her to confess, and Joan refuses every time. I figured out pretty quickly that she wasn’t going to admit to anything, so I’m not sure why they couldn’t see that. I would hope that they really didn’t want to kill her, and that’s why they kept trying, but they all seemed pretty bloodthirsty to me. I just wish there had been a little more action and less wide-eyed, blank staring.