Trial of Joan of Arc (Robert Bresson, 1962)
French Title: Procès de Jeanne d'Arc
Robert Bresson's Trial of Joan of Arc opens with robed steps scurrying towards a ranking church official. We never get a sense as to who exactly are these people until the central figure speaks; declaring that her daughter has lived a religious past and has been convicted and burned for false crimes. She reads her declaration from a scroll of parchment, and we can guess that the speaker is the mother of Joan of Arc. Drums interrupt the declaration, and as the opening credits are shown on screen, the image of the kneeling robed figure presumably still reading from the parchment persists. We learn from Bresson's introductory statement that the opening sequence is from the rehabilitation which took place 25 years after Joan's burning. More importantly, we also learn that no portrait or image remains of Joan, and that the film is completely reconstructed from the minutes of Joan's trial.
We first see the menacled hands of Joan (Florence Delay), atop the bible. The film is predominantly just a series of exchanges between Joan and her inquisitors, the Bishop Cauchon (Jean-Claude Fourneau) --- with Joan recitingly dictating her answers to her judges' interrogations. Whenever she's not in the trial, we see her in her cell; her hands are free but her foot bounded with metal chains. Moreover, there's a peeping hole in the cell where Joan's English guards consistently make remarks on their prisoner's disposition.
The atmosphere is claustrophobic --- when in trial, Joan is always surrouded by the heads of clergymen while being led by the Anglophile bishop to reveal relationships with witchcraft. Even more so while she's in the cell wherein walls of heavy stone (the film was shot in the exact prison where Joan was detained) surround her, and privacy and even remnants of her feminine dignity are being encroached. She claims that her martyrdom is her imprisonment, definitely unaware that her burning has been pre-destined by her English captors.
France is captured by England. The bishops are being controlled by their English-speaking masters. Joan is physically, mentally and psychologically restrained by both her captors and the voices that dwell inside her head. Bresson explicitly explores the struggle for release, for that philosophical freedom, by tackling the enigma of Joan of Arc. Imperatively, he doesn't allow much creative freedom from his actors, restricting their dialogues as to what has been transcribed from the historical trials. There's a feeling that the actors are merely reading their lines (the same way that the mother is reading from the parchment what she thought of was her daughter's life), restricted from enunciation or emotions. Like the characters they are portraying and Bresson is depicting, the methodology is quite restrictive to what is historically preserved from the life of Joan. It's uncomfortably straightforward, spartan in method, and rarely punctuated with humanity (we do see Joan cry, but it is probably due to Bresson's understanding that the lass is merely nineteen and is burdened with a spiritual duty).
From the narrative sparseness and the thematic intensity, Bresson develops a journey from corporeal imprisonment to freedom. There's a curious preoccupation with steps and footwork. Bresson's camera focuses a number of times on the feet of his characters; as if proclaiming our body's gravitational attraction with the Earth. That theme predominantly surfaces in Joan's trial --- the unsurprising uncomplementary nature of spiritual redemption and human politics (bureaucracy, justice, punishment). Bresson again captures Joan's bare feet finally lightfootedly walking towards the stake --- it's quite an unusual walk; it seems that she's scurrying or floating against the cement road; even an onlookers attempt to make her trip is met with failure as she continues her hurried steps.
We first see the free sky (a refreshing scene) when Joan is tied to the stake. While she burns, she says her last words --- that her voices did not deceive her (she begins to understand that she was meant to escape all corporeal imprisonment, not imprisonment dictated by the terms of human relations). When she breathes her last sigh, Bresson cuts to doves atop the canvas that separates the bishops from the sky, then again cuts to the stake with only ashes as remnants of Joan's body-bound self. It's quite a touching depiction of spiritual release.