Monday, May 25, 2015

Joan's Ageless Spirit: On Bresson's 1962 Trial of Joan of Arc; An Essay by Payman Akhlaghi (2015)

Joan's Ageless Spirit: On Bresson's 1962 Trial of Joan of Arc
An Essay by Payman Akhlaghi (2015, Draft 2)
[A revision of this post is in preparation which will expand on some themes, and clarify certain ambiguities.]
(*) First published on Monday, May the 25th, 2015, on, under Joan's Ageless Spirit: On Bresson's 1962 Trial of Joan of Arc.

"Procés de Jeanne d'Arc"(*)
(1962, French, BW, 64 mins)
"The Trial of Joan of Arc"
Writen & Directed by Robert Bresson
Music by Francis Seyrig

It's hard to exaggerate the purity, beauty, sophisticated simplicity, and insights of  "The Trial of Joan of Arc", Robert Bresson's deliberately modest film of 1962. In straight terms, the extraordinarily powerful image that ends the movie, a prolonged meditation on the burnt stake from which the body has vanished, by itself justifies an attentive viewing of what has preceded the epilogue. Bresson, as he writes toward the beginning, attempted to approach historical veracity by relying on extant transcripts from both the trial of 1431 and the "rehabilitation" testimonies 25 years after Joan's brutal execution. He also seems to have furthered aimed for authenticity and enhanced "truth" by casting non-professionals to act in the roles. Whatever one's reserves regarding the amateur feel of inexperienced actors, at the end, one is indeed left with a striking sense of the "truth" of the events that took place centuries ago, via the eyes of the artist.

Visually, if in "Pickpocket" Bresson follows the movements of the hands -- as Dr. Babak Ahmadi noted in his 1987 book in Persian(**) -- here, beginning with the opening images, he systemically traces the movements of the feet and the legs, as a consistently recurring stylistic and conceptual element throughout. On another note, there's an emphasis on the torturous tedium of the mock trials before the bishop, yet each return to the almost same frames and positions, day after day, is uniquely enhanced by the meticulous arrangement of the tableau in the background, composed mainly of men in "white" or "dark" robes, standing still before the grey stone walls. Each body is carefully oriented, and each look in the eye is directed to maximize the composition. Expressions, whether subdued or fluidly projected, remain unique and honest to most each face of the characters.

Aurally, the mob outside is primarily suggested by off-screen crowd noise and occasional shouts; while the distinction between English and French is used to enhance the political complexity of Joan's perilous situation. Dramatically, the dangers of the proceedings are often framed in very few words in scenes that punctuate the many appearances before the judges. Musically, the minimal use of tenor drum rolls and an occasional brass melody, scant and rare, has further underscored the cold solitude of the atmosphere, while the instrumentation suggests the militarist shadow that looms over and drives a quasi-ideological interrogation.

Bresson's vision of the tragedy unfolds in no sentimental or demagogic terms. This is a solemn reflection on not only a catastrophic moment and unspeakable cruelty in social history, but on the timeless fragility of innocence and freedom of thought in the face of powers far greater than an individual, which are yet threatened by her mere dissent at their foundation. The director's screenplay and presentation, with their recurring scenes and extended conclusion, read as a poem with refrains, while the tranquil tone of this realization renders the impact of the tragedy the more chilling and lasting on the audience. Furthermore, admitting a musician's bias, one can't help notice the decided resemblance of the structure of the screenplay to a "theme and variation" form, with a prelude (the recitation of Joan's mother's letter in her defense), the theme and progressive rondo variations (several appearances before the interrogators, followed by images of her solitude), codettas (the closing remarks for each scene) and a coda (the walk and the execution). As such, I find the film highly poetic and deeply musical.

In conclusion, we would be wrong, regardless of our ideological positions or creeds, to impose our hard-earned contemporary views about "religious vision or inspiration" on the story off Joan of Arc, if we could imagine for a moment that she did not suffer for them as horribly as she did. It would be equally wrong to take our heartfelt interest in her story as an approval of the content of her beliefs, as if to unearth and relive by some medieval worldview.

To be sure, on a larger scale, one may read Joan's tragedy in terms of naive religious superstition, psychological anomalies, or innocent if stubborn fanaticism, on the one hand, against a tremendously cruel and dogmatic religious, political and economic hypocrisy, which claims to unravel the falsehood of her claims, on the other. But that would be to miss and misunderstand the timeless dramatic, philosophical, and intellectual import of the story, and to reduce it unjustly within some accepted stereotypes. Here's a 19-year old young woman, who stands for what she believes in, who's pressured to recant her position by a powerful hypocrisy that allows her no room in the world, and who suffers immeasurable cruelty for her persistence and innocence. That alone far overshadows even the religious and patriotic militant side to her life that precedes the trial. Hers is a suffering empathized virtually by everyone.

Thence, Joan's story especially as told by Bresson maintains a broad appeal as much to the faithful as to the secular and to the atheist. Read whichever way, there's not doubt about the religio-political officials as the heavies of the story. From the standpoint of individual judgment, conscience, self-esteem, human dignity, and basic liberties, among the necessary components of our ethical existence, the content of Joan's beliefs, whether "right or wrong", whether  "true or false" in our eyes, take a far less significant position than her honest insistence on the truth of what she believes in. Hence, surface differences disappear, and her story emerges to share in essence with those of Socrates, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Spinoza, Robert Bolt's vision of Sir Thomas More, and every other thinker and visionary who was once pressed to deny their conscience, and who became a victim of ideological, religious, and political persecution. And there lies the secret of Joan's ageless spirit.

(*) The film is currently made available on Hulu by the Criterion Collection.
(**) The title of the book referenced may be translated as "The Wind Blows Wherever It Wishes" (1st ed.), Ahmadi, Dr. Babak; Persian, Tehran, ca. 1987.

© 2015, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

(*) Payman Akhlaghi is a composer, pianist and piano teacher based in Los Angeles. His repertoire covers Classical music, as well as Persian (Iranian) Music, Pop Music, and Film Music. For information on the lessons in the Greater Los Angeles area, including Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Encino, Brentwood, etc. please call: 310-208-2927. Thank you.

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