Carl Theodor Dreyer directed The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928. And yet, despite this unequivocal fact, the film does not belong to the year 1928. It doesn't seem to concretely belong anywhere; indeed, the film is strangely atemporal. Instead, the film belongs to a world where a close up can be stretched out over 85 minutes; where an entire world can be built on the physiognomy of a face. And this world is built upon the face of Maria Falconetti, a face unadorned by make up but imbued with the ability to turn the most subtle of facial ticks into a moment of emotional anagnorisis. The entire film is like a prolonged flash of revelation, and though Falconetti's eyes get increasingly wider and more desperate, they never stop conjuring up that which remains unspoken.
The film, if the opening titles are to be believed, dutifully follows the written record of the trial, imprisonment, and death of fabled martyr Joan of Arc. She is not the only character shot almost exclusively in close-up; the men who decide her fate are shot in a similarly close range, though admittedly to very different effect. If the camerawork acts as an hour an a half long elegy to Joan, it is effectively putting the men who judge her on trial. They are captured in harsh black and white tones and even harsher facial expressions. They are the ugly, jeering men whose faces keep no secrets but tell only lies, and the camera pans across their faces as if they were Roman portrait busts riddled with imperfections, at home in a museum but never at home in Joan's psyche.
And it is in Joan's psyche that the film takes place: these leering men stand in for the Satanic visions they constantly accuse Joan of having, and the look in Joan's eyes as they turn upward towards heaven does in fact seem to emanate the ethereal. And these awful faces get closer and closer until they seem to close in on Joan entirely, violating her space and the space of the film. And all of this is filmed with extreme attention to detail: from the warts on the faces of her accusers to the insects that occasionally land on Joan's face. And it is this strange detail, enlarged and crystal clear, that allows the film to escape any form of realism. By creating a film based on minutiae, tiny little flaws and facial movements that would be unremarkable in a wider shot become absurd and surreal, and through attention to the mundane, the film is able to portray the ethereal.
In the last scene of the film, Joan is burned at the stake. As flames engulf her tiny body and her shorn head, the camera pans across a different sort of people: not the judges who assigned this fate to Joan, but regular people, openly weeping at the sight before them. And the claustrophobic close-ups all of the sudden seem a bit less claustrophobic, as Joan begins to disappear into the smoke and tears roll down the faces of grown men. The image of birds soaring across the sky is intercut with the flames of the stake and the mounting anger of the people. And with this moment of emotional synchronicity, the disparate close-ups are no longer at odds. It is as though the discordant elements of Joan's tale have come together, and the film, which oftentimes feels like an 85 minute reconstruction of a second, is finally able to end. And the stake goes up in flames, and Joan is finally set free.