Oh, my God! Five big-screen passions (perspectives on Christian spirituality)

Film, from the beginning a way to portray the unportrayable and bring to life what can only be conceived of through magic or dreams (the work of Georges Méliès springs to mind, for example), not only doesn't avoid the topic of God but, in fact, has presented biblical stories in a wide array of variations, from the early 20th century to today.

1. THE TRUE CORE OF FAITH: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), by Carl Theodor Dreye

The first masterpiece of the most influential Danish film-maker, which was lost for decades, has had a clear impact on transgressive directors of today, such as Lars von Trier. This film depicts the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, played by the extraordinary Maria Falconetti. In Dreyer’s version, this historical figure is totally committed to the word of Christ, a devotion she sees through to the final consequence. In imitating his life, she ends up a martyr, with no chance of being understood rationally. So, in effect, the intertitles (which provide very basic explanations in this silent film) show how human reasoning is overcome by the irrationality of faith, as the Lutheran pastor Søren Kierkegaard showed parabolically in Fear and Trembling (which Dreyer named explicitly in his other great religious piece, The Word).

There is no human explanation to understand Joan of Arc’s vocation, her passionate run towards death. She is alone with her God, and the mundane, finite, corruptible reality doesn’t warrant showing. The certainty of faith, the truth in a god that is love, should save her in times of corruption. Even this temptation (of human weakness) that considers the possibility of staying alive, is part of the plan for salvation. Christ experienced it as well, calling out on the cross, in a fit of anguish, a completely paradoxical phrase: “Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?” This quote from the gospels can be troubling for the positive faithful who believe in the love of God and his designs. But in truth, the Lutheran theology of the Cross sees it as key to understanding the mystery of faith. Weakness, suffering and even possible separation from God, once recognised, give the movement it’s binding nature. The leap above human conventions seals the ties with God in fire.

Poster of  The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), by Carl Theodor Dreye

The dramatic nature of this paraphrasing of the Passion (as it appears in the scriptures from the Lutheran perspective, which aims to rescue the true core of Christianity) is represented visually in Dreyer’s work with a series of cinematographic resources that were unprecedented in 1928. The over-abundance of close-ups, some linked as travelling shots, faces off the accusers, disfigured by rage, and an undaunted Joan of Arc, sometimes inspired and others moved, letting a tear escape. Her incomprehension has the effect of indelible empathy, made possible by Falconetti’s portrayal, her final cinematic role. The film ends with moments of frenzied expressiveness, when the sentence is hastened and there is a huge commotion, expressed visually by putting the camera on a jib, causing it to swing back and forth like a bell. Prior to this moment, the pace of the film is slow yet extremely intense.


Dreyer’s film depicts physiological or emotional anguish more than physical suffering in its portrayal of Joan of Arc’s final moments. Misunderstood by the religious authorities (except for the character played by Antonin Artaud, who accompanies her at several moments and piously shows her the cross of Christ as a reminder and a consolation, in the final scene), she would be celebrated as a saint by the people. The role of the ingénue who gives herself body and soul to defending the truth, executed because of her disconcerting and potentially incendiary innocence, will reappear in various forms (without explicitly referencing faith) in the work of Lars von Trier, in films such as Breaking the Waves, Dogville and, above all, Dancer in the Dark.