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Robert Bresson's spare retelling of the final days of the maid of Orleans. Based on historical court records
Even by Bresson's standards, this is an exacting film. It clocks in at just over an hour, but it's as draining to watch as something three times as long. It's as meticulously crafted and rewarding as anything in Bresson's oeuvre - but the pleasures it gives are hard earned.
Bresson claimed he was trying to arrive at "a non-historical truth by using historical words." The script is taken from transcripts made at the trial of Joan of Arc, the famous 15th century maiden-soldier, and from testimonies given 25 years later when further proceedings were ordered to clear her name.
This trial seems bizarre and alien by today's standards. The 19-year-old-girl (Carrez, aka Florence Delay) faces a barrage of questions about the saints' voices that led her to embark on her military campaigns. She's asked about the superstitions and traditions of her local village, her virginity and her relationship with God (including the famous reply to the question of whether she is in God's grace: "If I'm not, may God bring me to it. If I am, may he keep me in it.") She is constantly in chains, frightened and humiliated. With skilled ellipses Bresson leaves the viewer to imagine the horror of the test on her virginity.
The aim is more to prove her guilty of spiritual crimes than of war crimes and Bresson makes no attempt to smooth out the edges that rub roughly against modern society - even if, contradictory as this may seem, he emphasises the similarities that Joan has with contemporary (in the 1960s at least) young women. She is surly, defiant of authority, rebellious in dress and thoroughly self-assured - until, inevitably, her moment of great crisis.
There are few distractions from the court proceedings or Joan's interior struggle. The actors barely act. There are only a few sparsely furnished locations (the plain court room, a cell, the corridor through which Joan's captor's spy on her). Most of the time the camera simply alternates between Joan's face and the chief judge Bishop Cauchon (Forneau).
As Bresson portrays it, the trial is a fix. He subtly suggests that the French ecclesiastical judges - and especially Bishop Cauchon - may be acting against their consciences, although they are clearly corrupt and ultimately under the control of Joan's English enemies. Nor is Joan just a saint. A few mysterious communications with a man in a white robe during the trial proceedings allow doubt to form about whether she's really sincere about the messengers from God she claims to hear. It's these complexities and ambiguities that give the film resonance. Combined with the stark, handsome imagery they create a lasting impression. Typically, Bresson ends it all on a note of haunting beauty, the burnt out stake and manacles that Joan has finally escaped suggesting redemption as much as they do agony.
A film that is more rewarding to recall than to watch, but one with undeniable impact and power.
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