Friday, June 26, 2020

Joan of Arc Month: Childhood

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc

In a quick, not necessarily reliable, search of which historical characters have been depicted most often in films, I found Napoleon Bonaparte was the winner with 194 films, Jesus second with 152 followed by Abraham Lincoln with 137. Joan of Arc is almost certainly a contender in the category of woman most frequently featured in a film, with 44 films (11 of those being television features). So, even though this is the last week of Joan of Arc Month for June of 2020, it wouldn’t be difficult to do Joan Month Part Deux. For instance, we bypassed Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic Joan the Woman (available on YouTube.) Roberto Rossellini made Joan of Arc at the Stake starring his wife Ingrid Bergman (almost a decade after Ingrid first played Joan -- and she was too old the first time.) Otto Preminger made Saint Joan based on the classic George Bernard Shaw play. We could even go with Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind in which Joan is played by Hedy Lamarr.

But if we should do another month of Joan of Arc, I very much doubt we will ever find a film quite as strange as Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc. It is almost certainly the oddest films we've ever viewed at Movie Churches.

The Amazon Prime description calls the film a “heavy metal musical about a young shepherdess, Jeannette, the future Joan of Arc.” This sounds odd by itself, but that doesn’t even mention the amateurish acting, Elaine Benes level choreography, and random absurdist elements. The script was based on a 1910 play by a Catholic writer, Charles Peguy, featuring young children having conversations about the problem of evil, questions of theodicy. So, sure, it’s… different.

Initially, I thought we finally might have a JoA film that cast an actress of appropriate age for the character, but the film does odd things with chronology. Often in films, the teen Joan is played by an actress in her twenties or thirties. But this film starts out with a title card saying that the film opens in 1425 and claims to present Jeannette as an 8-year-old, but the actress playing her seems a couple of years older than that. Now the real Joan/Jeannette was born in 1412, so in 1425 she was actually 13. This was all too much math for me. 

Whatever age the young actress was or was meant to be, the acting, singing, and especially the dance challenges presented to her seemed far too daunting. (As for the dance, it seemed someone off stage was telling her, “Hop! Now spin! Now make windmill motions!”)

As a shepherdess, Jeannette seems to spend a great deal of time away from her sheep, wandering by the creek, singing tuneless songs. She encounters a couple of small boys and she gives them her bread (and then tells others of her noble deed, “I gave them all my bread, my mid-day meal and afternoon snack. I thought of all the starving people in the world.”)

She talks with her friend Hauviette, another little girl, about how Jeannette is perceived by others in the village. Her friend says, “The parishioners believe you are happy because you care for the sick, but I know you are unhappy.” She says she understands Jeannette is unhappy because of injustice in the world. They talk about the oppression of the French by the English. 

Jeannette ponders in song, “What can our charity do? When war is stronger than suffering.” Her friend suggests that a nun from the convent, Madame Gervaise, can help because she will know why God allows suffering in the world.

Unlike other presentations of Joan viewed this month, we never see Joan in a church. There are no priests in this film, but there is this one (maybe two) nun(s), it’s not really clear. Because when Madame Gervaise the nun comes, she comes in the form of two women, played by sisters (Aline and Elise Charles.)

Jeanette is asking of God in song, “What have you done with your Christian people? Could Jesus have died in vain?"

The nun(s) reply, “He is here, He is among us! Eternally, every day, His body, the same body that hung on the cross. The same sacrifice sheds the same blood. He perishes eternally for every parish.” (I don’t know what it was in the original French, but I appreciated that perish/parish pun in the English subtitle.)

But that's pretty much the only appearance of clergy in the film and this blog is here to present how clergy and churches are presented in film.

We see her meet with her “Voices,” Saint Marguerite and Saint Catherine (played by the Charles sisters who played the nun), and Saint Michael (played by a woman). They tell her she must save France.

The film ends where most stories of Joan begin, with slightly older Jeanne, now a teenager, going off with her uncle (a very young uncle in this version) to see the Dauphin about leading the French army. A good deal of time is spent discussing how to deceive her father so she will be able to leave.

The Jeannette/Joan of this film spends a great deal more time questioning God than Joans in other versions of the story, and more than I would think the real-life Joan questioned God. I blame the lack of church in this film, and that very odd nun(s) -- which is why I’m only giving the unseen church and seen nun(s) a rating of Two Steeples.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Joan of Arc Month: Where We Don't Write About Bill & Ted

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
It really is too bad that during Joan of Arc Month I can’t discuss what is very likely the most popular film featuring the Maid of Orleans. But sadly, though that supreme cinematic masterpiece, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, has Joan, it doesn’t have any church or clergy. In that film, two good-hearted but rather dim high school students are loaned a time machine that they use for help with their history report. They abduct several historical figures: Napoleon, Socrates, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig von Beethoven, Genghis Khan, Abraham Lincoln, and Joan of Arc. I’m sure you’re thinking what I’m thinking… Why are women so greatly underrepresented while the French are so over-represented? Instead of talking to saints in the film, Joan leads an aerobics class. So we aren’t even going to bother discussing that film.

We're moving on to The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc directed by Luc Besson.

In this version, 23-year-old Milla Jovovich (a decade younger than Ingrid Bergman in last week's film), plays the teen warrior, but the story beats are much the same. Such set-pieces as Joan calling out an impersonator of Charles VII and discovering the true Dauphin (John Malkovich) are in both films, but this version also has much more elaborate battle sequences and, more importantly for this blog, more scenes in churches.

In the earlier film, Joan visits the ruins of a church with no priest in sight. In this film, we see Joan as a little girl talking to a priest in her hometown church. The priest says to her, “I’m always happy to see you, but you’ve been coming to church two, three times a day.”

“I need to confess,” Joan tells the priest, “I saw a poor monk without cheese. I gave him some.”

The priest is baffled why Joan considered this a sin, but she explains, “The cheese wasn’t mine, it was my father’s. He forgave me. I want Jesus to (forgive me).”

The exasperated priest exclaims, “If we bring every little thing to confession, we’ll spend our whole lives in church!”

“And what’s wrong with that?” Joan asks.

“Are you happy at home?” the priest asks.

“Yes, very,” Joan answers, “But I feel safe here. It’s where I can talk to him.”

“Who is this, he?” the priest asks.

“He never says his name. He’s beautiful.”

“What does he say?” is the next question from the priest.

“I must be good and help everyone and take care of myself,” she answers.

“Wherever he’s coming from,” the priest tells her, “you should listen to him because it sounds like he gives very good advice.”

Joan loves the church; she would be happy to spend her life there, but instead, that voice calls her to the battlefield.

Shortly after that is another scene that has no counterpart in the 1948 film. Joan is at home with her older sister when English soldiers break into their house. Joan hides in a closet which allows her to peer out and see the rape and murder of her sister (a truly disturbing scene). A priest performs the sister’s graveside service, and a greatly disturbed Joan finds her only comfort and hope in the church and its clergy.

She asks a priest why her sister died, instead of herself. An old priest tells her, “Only God can answer that. I realize your anguish, but you must learn to forgive. One thing I’m sure, God always has a reason. He has a reason to use you.”

It is soon after that Joan's Voices reveal the reason God has preserved her. “I was going to Mass, as I do every day, but everything was made clear, God gave me a message I was to deliver. He said I must save France from her enemies and deliver her into God’s hands.”

When Joan offers her help to Charles, and he seeks the help of the church to verify her credentials. The Archbishop is charged with affirming her orthodoxy and the nuns are charged with affirming her claim of virginity. She passes both tests.

History dictates other appearances of the church in the film. Charles VII’s coronation takes place in a cathedral where he is charged with the defense of “your Holy Mother Church.” And of course, clergy preside over her trial for heresy.

There is one priest at the trial who tries to help her, taking her side when she asks to bring her case to the Pope. That priest is arrested by the English. As history tells us, the clergy convict her of heresy, and she's handed over to the civil authorities to be burned at the stake -- and that is not a good look. It keeps the church and clergy in this film from earning our highest steeple rating, but the good clergy early in the film earn a Three Steeples. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Joan of Arc Month: Joan Goes Hollywood

Joan of Arc
The CW Network (and its deceased parent networks, the WB and UPN) receives much rightful grief for having actors in their twenties play teen characters. (Conversely, their parents are played by actors in their thirties.) This week’s Joan of Arc Month movie beat TV to this trend by decades by having 33-year-old Ingrid Bergman play the teen Joan. And, as on those youth trending networks, our heroine has to be hot. (The Dauphin, played by Jose Ferrer, remarks that people follow Joan because she is so attractive. Quite the Hollywood perspective of politics.)

As a whole, this 1948 telling of the Joan of Arc story tries to be much prettier than the 1928 version we looked at last week or, more importantly, the historical record. It makes sense; this is the Hollywood telling of the story as opposed to the French telling of the story. The French tend toward a more cynical view of the Church -- to put it lightly (see the murder of priests and nuns during their Revolution in the late 1700s). Hollywood in the Golden Age usually deemed it best to treat the Church with kid gloves. It isn't surprising that Victor Fleming, director of Gone With the Windmanages to make the Hundred Years War nearly as picturesque as the American Civil War.

So let’s look at how churches and clergy are presented in the film (since that's the point of this blog). The film begins with an abstract presentation of the inside of a basilica with heavenly light shining upon it and a narrator pronouncing the canonization of Joan. Bells chime and candles flicker, and we are assured from the beginning that eventually the Church will get things right as to the significance of the Maid of Orleans.

The next church we see looks like it got bombed in the Blitz. We see a young Joan praying in a small church in ruins. We learn that it is the village church of Domremy, Joan’s home town. But it is in ruins, perhaps because of the Hundred Years War? The altar is fine, as are the pews, but the stone walls have very large gaps. Joan (or Jeanette, as she is generally called in her hometown -- before her name changes for reasons the film does not explain) is beseeching her “Voices” to speak to her and give her direction.

Her father enters the church to order his daughter to make breakfast, reprimanding her for “thinking of nothing else but this church.” He lectures her about neglecting her friends and family for her “daydreaming” about saints. At that breakfast, the family has a visitor: Joan’s uncle who has been off at the battles.

Her uncle tells about the horrors of the war and is much harsher in his denunciation of the Burgundians (French who fought against their countrymen) than the English. (This make sense for the filmmakers of the time and filmgoers who had just fought WWII with the English as allies while the French were divided between the Vichy who allied with the Third Reich and the Resistance who opposed it.) Without her parents’ permission, Joan joins her uncle as he returns to the battle.

She explains to her uncle, “It’s more than four years since I first heard the voice of saints in my father’s garden. I am only a poor girl of the farms, I am not fit to talk to great people.” But she feels she must approach “great people.” Eventually, she is able to see the Dauphin, Charles VII, the uncrowned king of France. Joan tells him that he will be crowned.

She tells the Dauphin that God has called her to join the army against the English. (Those who disagree sarcastically sneer that Joan can join the army as a “camp follower,” a prostitute.) Some worry her “Voices” might not be heavenly. Before she can join the troops, she is asked if she has studied witchcraft (she responds with an emphatic “No.”) A priest is brought in to examine her.

The priest asks Joan if she is from God, and if she is, to come near. Joan approaches the priest and asks for his blessing. The priest assures all around that “she’s no sorceress, the devil has no part in this woman.” The priest treats her kindly, calling her “my child.”

When Joan joins the army, she insists that the men change their behavior. First of all, she orders, “There will be no swearing in camp.” A soldier (Ward Bond) responds, “You want the army to be mute?” She tells the generals and troops, “From now on there won’t be much time for games. Pick up your dice. They tell me there is no changing of armies. We must be on God’s side. There must be no gambling, no swearing, or taking God’s name in vain; and camp women must be sent away. And you must go to confession. There is no strength in our hands, our strength is in our faith. We can win only if we become God’s army. It is not easy to ask this. It is not easy to do.”

Joan leads the French army to victory but is wounded by an arrow to the shoulder. A soldier asks her if she wants to “Hold my amulet; it will hold away the pain.” 

Joan responds, “I would rather die than use sorcery.”

When Joan sees the devastation of the English army, she cries, “I have no hatred for the English.” but she is encouraged when she is told that she has given faith to the people of France.

Joan attends the coronation of Charles VII in a church, and it is indeed a worship service. Charles bows before the altar and the Bishop. It is a worship service, and, of course, is in Latin.

Alleluias are sung as Charles is crowned King. Joan says, “This is the day we have fought for and it is here.” 

All shout, “Long live the King!”

But of course, not all are pleased with the victory. The Burgundian Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais (Francis L. Sullivan), says, “This is no subject for jesting. She is victorious and has made no mistakes so far. The church has had to deal with many heretics, but none as dangerous as this one. She would have been declared a heretic if I had been there.” Pierre gets his chance later, as he judges Joan's heresy trial.

Joan’s victory is short-lived. Her beloved King, Charles, betrays her by signing a truce with the English. Joan is turned over to the Burgundian clergy for trial. (Joan asks for French clergy to try her rather than English clergy. She is granted this request to some degree, but they are French clergy sympathetic to the English.)

Joan’s trial is not proper; there are many laws of the church broken. Joan should have been guarded by women in a women’s prison, but she is sent to a men’s prison with soldiers as guards. She appeals to Rome and asks to be tried by the Pope (who is “subject to no king”), but this lawful appeal is denied. And she is denied the Sacrament of the Eucharist unless she signs a confession.

Throughout the trial, Joan is supported by Father Jean Massieu (Shepperd Strudwick), her counselor.  He voices his concern and support for Joan throughout the trial, but his opinion is overruled. (Several priests  who support Joan are arrested.) Eventually, Joan is convinced she should deny that she's been hearing voices from God.

As history tells us, Joan renounces her confession and sent to the stake to be burned. As she's led to the place of execution, she's forced to wear a hat that calls her, “Relapsed heretic, sorceress, blasphemer, idolatress, apostate,” and that hat becomes the sign on her stake.

The Bishop reads the charges against Joan before the crowd, and he turns her over to the civil authorities to be executed. Joan dies, yet cries out to Jesus. Triumphant music and a shot of the heavens assure us that really, all is well.

The Church is presented positively at times in this film, but it is still responsible for the torture and murder of an innocent woman, so a Two Steeple rating is the best we can do.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Joan of Arc Month: Silent

The Passion of Joan of Arc
That feeling when you’re watching a film that’s nearly a hundred years old about events that took place nearly six hundred years ago and it seems to be ripped from today’s headlines. Sure, it doesn’t happen too often, but it did when I was watching Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Joan, of course, lived a brief but fascinating life, and the film’s life has been rather fascinating as well. French nationalists were quite skeptical about a Danish director telling the story of their national heroine. Dreyer spent a year studying the transcripts of the trial of Joan and took all of the dialogue (I should say title cards) from those transcripts. The final version was deemed blasphemous by the Archbishop of Paris, and so the film was severely edited by French government censors. The original version of the film was considered lost. But in 1981, the final version of the film was found in a mental institution in Olso, Norway.

When I was planning out Joan of Arc Month at the end of 2019, I figured I'd borrow a DVD of the film from the library. I didn’t anticipate the difficulty of doing something so seemingly simple in the pandemic world to come. Then I discovered the whole film was on Youtube -- which was great because we found the title cards were translated in subtitles...into Portuguese. Since neither Mindy or I know either language, we weren't positive what the title cards said, but we enjoyed making guesses (“‘Hommes’ means ‘men,’ right? I think they’re asking why she’s wearing men’s clothing.”) And fortunately, though the title cards are limited, the story is fairly easy to follow (especially if you know a bit of Joan’s story.)

So what it Joan’s story? She was born in a peasant family in Domremy 1412 toward the end of the Hundred Years' War when her native France was still dominated by England. As she grew up, she claimed to have visions from Christian Saints who told her she would lead French armies against the English and bring victory for Charles VII of France. Amazingly, she did indeed lead French armies to victories. But in 1430 she was captured by French nobles allied with the English. She was handed over to the English and put on trial for heresy by French clergymen loyal to the English. The film is the story of that trial.

Maria Falcontti (a stage actress in one of her few film roles) played Joan with a performance that is still heralded as one of the greatest on the screen. Dreyer used mainly close-ups to capture the performances. He insisted his actors not wear make-up and filmed under harsh lights making Joan pathetic and her persecutors grotesque.

As the trial begins, Joan is forced to swear on the Bible, a locked Bible bound in chains. She is asked about her visions of St. Michael. As mentioned before, she is asked why she is wearing men's clothes and declares that she will wear them until her mission from God is complete.

One of the priests believes her to be a saint and he bows to her, along with some of the monks. Those men are thrown out of the proceedings.

Joan is subjected to physical torture but won’t recant her visions or her loyalty to France and her King. But the clergy comes upon a more insidious form of torture. They threaten to kill her without allowing her to take communion, jeopardizing her state of grace in death. This leads her to recant and sign a confession. She receives the Sacrament.

But she then recants her recant. She is tied to the stake with a sign naming her a heretic. She is burned alive. Joan cries out to Jesus in her death.

It is then that something a little too familiar takes place. The French people, outraged by the execution of an innocent by authorities riot. They throw rocks through the church windows. The clergy bring in soldiers, hand out maces, beat the protesting men and women. It all seems too much like this week's newsfeed.

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But we aren’t here to evaluate the film, let alone history or current events. We are here to examine the clergy in films. And I’m afraid we rather frown upon clergy who proclaim young women satanic, let alone torturing them and executing them. So the church and clergy in this film earn a measly one Steeple. Of course, Joan would later be declared a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church -- which I would roughly equate with our highest Clergy rating of Four Steeples.