After months of quarantine, isolation, social distancing, wearing masks and passing empty grocery store shelves, you may have discovered that man can indeed live on potatoes, rice or bread alone, contrary to what Jesus Christ said. However, in his New Testament statement, the Nazarene wasn’t talking about bread in the literal sense, but of spiritual nourishment.
The same could be said of movies. They are not merely people standing in front of lights saying things. In most cases, you should feel a sort of suspension of gravity that lightens the heaviness of the world. Yet, in Bruno Dumont’s Joan of Arc, the French director (always the French) takes you as close to the bread and water version of filmmaking one can hope to achieve in a two-plus-hour package, marching inevitably to a burning at the stake.
Dumont’s Joan is an epic for a time of quarantine and scarcity. So, you can live on bread alone. The question is, “Do you want to?”
In considering that question, know that the action of the film, including the battles and events that are later discussed, takes place off-screen. The audience experiences the butt-blistering length of the film through long, pensive shots that slowly zoom in on Joan’s face, pan through large empty cathedrals and sweep across vistas of open countryside.
This is not so much a complaint but a statement of bare facts. The film is sparse — apparently by design rather than from a lack of resources — and it formally rejects many of the combustible cinematic elements that audiences tend to expect. It’s a drama, after all, not an action film — though even the scenes of heightened emotional content are put forth in a mood of artful restraint.
While the viewer certainly gets a feel for the bureaucracy and tedium of the trial of Joan of Arc — which helps the viewer experience Joan’s travails — in so doing, the film tends to drag on. Framed in a religious setting, it’s not difficult to feel as if you are sitting through a long and dreary liturgy and would rather be somewhere else. Yet you sit, as if doing penance for some imagined sin.
Dumont shrewdly (and perhaps brilliantly) employs real-life academics to play the incompetent, hectoring Catholic clerics who put Joan on trial. Stroke of genius! And this proves to be the most interesting part of the film. Those learned men steal the show from even Joan herself.
Not everything has to be short and sweet, but historical biography tends to benefit greatly by a tight focus on singular events. Joan could have greatly benefited from a stricter framing around the drama of the trial and a leaner run time.
But don’t let the pace deter you. If you’re into girl-power films, this is one you may want to check out. In total, it’s slow but not excruciating — a good springboard into further study of a significant historical figure.
Fair warning, though: After viewing this film, you will have trouble dislodging Tal Bachman’s song “She’s So High” from your head.
Available to rent starting June 5 via grailmoviehouse.com