Laudetur Iesus Christus!
I would be lying if I said I was not looking forward to doing this. As you know, this is one of my favorite films ever!
For those who do not know what’s going on, Saint Joan of Arc’s feast day is at the end of the month on 30 May so to celebrate, commemorate, and jubilate, we are going to watch this classic piece of silent cinema which is really considered one of the greatest performances captured on film with Renee Falconetti as Joan of Arc.
While the film was originally intended to be viewed in silence, a few decades after its initial release, composer Richard Einhorn created musical accompaniment for the film, which in my humble opinion does nothing but add to the beauty of what we are watching on screen.
At the beginning of the libretto, there is a note about the inspiration of the music.
The libretto for Voices of Light is a patchwork of visions, fantasies, and reflections assembled from various ancient sources, notably the writings of medieval female mystics. The texts may be thought of as representing the spiritual, political, and metaphorical womb in which Joan was conceived.
Translation: Using the words of Scripture, female mystics, and other sources from the time, the composer seeks to illustrate to the listener/viewer the environment/culture in which Joan finds herself as she struggles to follow what her voices tell her and simultaneously save her life.
Shall we begin? First watch the clip and then read my notes below the screen. You might want to full-screen it and listen to the music and pay attention to the cinematography. It truly is a beautiful film. It will open telling the story of how the film survived to the present day.
The prelude comes from the Book of Daniel: with a prayer to God
Who knows things hidden and all things before they happen. You know they have borne false witness against me and see! I die, although I am innocent of everything their malice has invented against me.
This is obviously referring in this context to Joan and how there were persons, namely the English and the Burgundians (French who were loyal to the English crown) who were determined to see her die as a witch and/or a heretic. There were some ambitious churchmen among them who saw the trial and execution of Joan the heretic as a means to get the power and prestige they so lusted for. They did not want to believe that her voices came from God. They did not want to believe that God willed that France be free from English rule. And how providential since not long after the war ended, England fell in the Protestant Rebellion (not Reformation). Had France lost, she probably would have gone down with England.
The next citation from the prophet Daniel:
[His] throne … was ablaze with flames,
his wheels were a burning fire.
A swift river of fire came forth from his countenance
A thousand thousand waited upon him
Ten thousand times a hundred thousand stood by.
The court sat,
and the books were opened.
Our first encounter with fire imagery (I wonder why?) and reference to the tribunal that had been set up to try Joan for heresy and apostasy.
After we learn the story of the trial of Joan and what we learn about her from the transcripts (which are the basis of the dialogue in the film), the scene is set in the room where Joan is to be tried. As the camera pans across, we see the soldiers in armor with weapons and the judges who were usually clerics (you’ll see Franciscan habits and Dominican habits) preparing for the trial to begin.
After the bells finish tolling in the background, we hear:
Jehanne … the Maid sends you news from these parts: that in on week she has chased the English out of all the places that they had held along the Loire Rive, either by assault or otherwise, in which encounters many English were killed and captured and she has routed them in a pitched battle. A brother of the Earl of Suffol’s and Glasdale were killed.
I promise and assure you [that we will take possession] of all the cities that must belong to [our] holy realm … in spite of all opposition!
So God King of Heaven, wills it; and so it has been revealed by the Maid …
-From a letter from Jeanne d’Arc
You will hear references to “the Maid,” is alludes to the legend of the Maid of Lorraine who would save France from her enemies. Many people in France, including royalty, saw Joan as the fulfillment of this prophesy. This also speaks of the amazing military victories Joan had as she led the army in their fight against the English. Territories that commanders before her had not even dreamed of trying to take were taken under her leadership in a relatively short period of time.
The trial opens with who I think is the head judge asking her introductory questions. It is here that we first encounter the humanity of Joan in that she speaks of what she was called her village, Domrémy: Jeanette and how old she is to which she answers that she think that she is nineteen. After she replies that she is not quite sure about her age, the camera pans out to see the reaction of the judges to her lack of certitude about her own age, which cannot be surprising because women were not educated very much unless they were royalty. Joan was just a peasant girl, whatever she knew she learned from her mother or the parish priest.
You will also note the use of close-ups in this film, it is to give emphasis to the emotional expressions on the faces of the actors. There are stories that the woman who played Joan, Renee Falconetti, was put through grueling circumstances so that the director, Carl Theodore Dreyer, would be pleased with the shots. You will also notice that the actors are not wearing makeup, quite a change if you ever watch any silent films from that time because they had to layer it on at times just to have the actors pop from the background (watch a few Rudolph Valentino movies and you can see his makeup line where the makeup ends and his natural coloring begins). I also think it accentuates the facial expressions and makes it look more natural like you are actually witnessing all of these events rather than just a representation of them.
It obvious at times to see that the judges are using Joan, her lack of formal education, and her simplicity of faith to belittle her. Such is the pride of man when it is left unchecked. If only they knew who she was and from Whom she was sent.
The best part is when they ask her a question to try to corner her and make her show herself as a heretic and she just answers the question calmly and promptly shuts them up and their facial expression changes along with their attitude. She shuts them down a few times actually. Go Joan!
After stating that she does not know if God hates or loves the English, she says that she does know that they must be driven from France. Obviously, this insults the English soldiers and judges because they feel they have the right to take over France and control her. This is when one of the soldiers insults her and swears at her as the choir sings loudly, “Homasse.” which was a medieval slur directed at women that means, “Masculine woman.” Mind you, Joan is dressed in men’s clothes which at that time was not only controversial but a grave sin (oh Lord, if wearing full slacks was a sin then, imagine what would happen considering how some people dress nowadays with everything hanging out that no one needs/wants to see).
Then the questioning continues and Joan delivers some wonderful shut downs yet again where they are hoping to corner her but she just delivers the logical smackdown. You don’t need to be highly educated, you just need a brain between your ears and know how to use it.
While she is being questioned, the music continues:
Oh! What an honor for the feminine sex! This entire realm, once lost by [wretched men],
restored and save by a woman again.”
-Ditie de Jehanne d’Arc by Christine de Pizan 1429 (considered one of the earliest known feminist writers)
So ends part one.
We’re just at the beginning and it only gets better. I love love love this film and I hope you grow to love it too. The music on its own is beautiful but with the film they just click so gloriously.
Since it’s pretty much Thursday, maybe I can post part 2 on Saturday or Sunday. I will have links back to everything along with libretto and the whole schmear.
Let me know what you think!
Have a blessed evening!