Robert Bresson’s 1962 version of this famous historical event, based entirely on the minutes from the trial, provides a claustrophobic, reverent, and surprisingly brisk walk through significant moments in Joan’s final days. Clocking in at a mere 61 minutes, Bresson’s frequent cuts make the film feel even faster than it is. Constantly the camera cuts away from Joan to those scrutinizing her, and then back again. Some look upon her with sympathetic eyes, though most feel little beyond disdain for her, most often, it seems, for political, rather than exclusively religious reasons. This way of shooting and editing the piece serves to heighten Joan’s alienation from those around her.
The trial tends to focus on religious elements, which makes sense, since Joan was tried by an ecclesiastical court, headed by the Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon. However, there was far more in play here beyond a simple theological dispute. Joan, having been involved in what amounts to a civil war in 15th century France, had been captured by the Burgundians and sold to their English allies. It was under these inauspicious circumstances that the trial was conducted. Bresson cleverly highlights the political nature of the trial with brief scenes before and after the day’s proceedings or in and around Joan’s cell. The bulk of the action takes place in the courtroom – a theologically driven question and answer between judges and accused that sees Joan fielding questions from at least three different men who often attempt to trip her up with their adroit queries.
Most interesting about the film is Bresson’s focus on the physicality of his characters. In typical Bresson fashion, he focuses his camera on the bodies of his actors, especially their hands and feet. The opening shot of the film pictures the walking feet of three people (including Joan’s mother), on their way to Joan’s rehabilitation trial some 25 years after her death. Once there, Joan’s mother is held up by the hands of monks on either side of her. As she’s turned away from the camera, reading a prepared piece about Joan, those helping hands are the most notable elements in the shot.
Contrast that opening sequence with the film’s conclusion, as Joan makes the long walk to her place of execution. Bresson refuses to point the camera at her face, preferring instead to show her bare feet, in a continuous shot, walking along the broken stone. In this sequence, the feet of many onlookers stand in the background, one of whom even sticks his foot out to trip her (in case one wondered if they had any pity for her). Then, as Joan is being consumed by flames, Bresson shoots part of the scene from behind, where we see her hands, chained to the post, reach out in pain. Joan’s naked feet and chained hands are quite a contrast from the clothed feet and soft hands of the intro.
Yet, even in that most difficult moment when Joan is so alone, those naked feet are a marked contrast from her chained feet throughout the trial. Consider the first time she is brought back to her room. The guard chains her foot to the immovable beam as Joan weeps at the edge of the bed. She is captive, with no sign it will end. Yet as the film concludes, and Joan makes that long walk over the stony path, her feet, while naked and accompanied only by a dangling cross, are free as they move toward impending death. There is a courage in those bare feet, a courage that evokes the one to whom she serves and entrusts herself.