The Trial of Joan of Arc (Bresson, 1962)

bressontrial1When I visited Italy in the Summer of 2001, one of my stops was at a small shrine/museum in Rome, not far from ruins of the Roman senate and places of government. It was an old prison, and the tradition (or story to tourists) was that it was the prison where Paul was kept while awaiting his fate. Whether this was literally true or whether it was a reconstruction in the style of a Roman prison didn’t matter much for the effect.

I was struck by the smallness of the chamber. There were circular stairs that took one to the basement cell, but there was also a hole in the cement roof with a grating, and the prisoner could be lowered (or thrown) in. I was similarly struck by the irony of the cells geographic proximity to the seat of the Roman empire. What an irony to be so close to the heights of power geographically and yet politically, socially, emotionally, to be so very, very far from freedom. The “real” world must have seemed in some ways distant, far away, almost an illusion.

I thought of that room and the impression it made on me when I watched Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc. Joan had a small cell of her own, and some of the most visually powerful shots in the film are those of her being chained to the foot of her bed, further limiting her mobility and further shrinking her world. One would think that a film within such a limited setting would be static and uninteresting, at least visually. Yet the juxtaposition between the cramped nature of her physical world and the breadth and nuance of her words makes an undeniable impression of the ineffable, invisible interior world of the mystic. I was reminded of Jesus’s words in John 4, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”

The general consensus from what I’ve read is that Bresson’s films are preoccupied with the ineffable. The physical world is so concrete; how does one try to film the spiritual or inner world as opposed to, say, filming someone talking about it, which is not the same thing? It is in the contrast between smallness of her surroundings and largeness of her words that Joan’s inner world is…not filmed exactly…but…evident. John Donne once wrote, “I am a little world made cunningly,” suggesting that the complexity of the world is contained in microcosm in the human spirit. There is a depth and complexity to Joan that is evoked through her words and transcends the wit or cleverness that might be conveyed were the film to try to show it directly rather than by implication.

Want an odd connection? As I was thinking about this contrast between interior and exterior worlds, a contrasting film that flitted across my brain was Philip Kaufman’s Quills. That film failed, I thought, largely because it was too ripe, too concrete, and above all too explicit. (Though by that I don’t mean sexually explicit, only that most everything that is conveyed seems attempted to be conveyed through performance and action.) What is missing are the words, and the words are what convey the inner life. They are sufficient to create the contrast. They can ripple on the surface of the action, where melodrama will always simply splash, sink, and wait for another splash. By that, of course, I don’t mean that a film needs expository speeches, only that those that depict solitude or isolation need to demonstrate they understand that such conditions usually lead to thickness of words rather than an abundance of them. Just as we are told that someone who loses one sense may develop the others more acutely, so too the mystic who is physically confined may plum their interior world to greater depths than the rest of us.

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