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18— Giovanna d'Arco al Rogo (1954)
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Giovanna d'Arco al Rogo

Around this time Rossellini turned, at least partly from financial necessity, to directing theater and opera. His first effort was Verdi's Otello , produced by the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, and it gained him the most acclaim he had had in years. Pasquale di Costanza, the director of the opera company, then asked Rossellini if he would like to do something with Bergman in it, and proposed Paul Claudel and Arthur Honegger's oratorio Jeanne au bûcher (Joan at the Stake), which had originally premiered at Orleans, France on May 6, 1939. Bergman knew the oratorio, as she had been given the recording of it during the production of the Hollywood version of Saint Joan. Rossellini had the records sent to him and began to imagine what he might turn the oratorio into.

His first innovation was a system of rear projection of photographs by means of which the setting could be instantly changed from a church to a landscape. The biggest problem facing the director, however, was that in the original, Joan remains motionless, tied to her stake throughout the entire performance, while dancers and a chorus interpret her memories of childhood and the events leading up to her trial. Characteristically, Rossellini waited until just before rehearsals were scheduled to plan his staging. Bergman tells us in her autobiography that "fortunately for me, Roberto took hardly any notice of Paul Claudel's stage instructions":

And he got what I thought was a brilliant idea. The curtain rises, and another girl, a small child, is tied to the stake at the back, and she is Saint Joan. The flames rise and she is dying; then, out of the darkness I rise up on an elevator to my first position. I'm dressed all in black, only my face showing. That face represents my mind, the mind that can look back at my life and my ex-


Bergman as Joan of Arc at the stake in  Giovanna d'Arco al rogo  (1954).


periences. There are big gangways sloping up here and there, and on one of them I meet Brother Dominique who tells me of what I am accused. Then the gangways are lowered to the floor and I'm free to run around.[1]

The reception of Rossellini's version of the oratorio in Naples, and later at La Scala in Milan, was excellent, and he seemed genuinely pleased with his new métier where "I have accumulated nothing, no past, and everything is new."[2] When the production moved to the Paris Opera House, however, a serious problem arose in the person of Paul Claudel. He had heard of the changes Rossellini had "inflicted" on his oratorio, and even though all the performances were completely sold out, he withdrew his approval at the last minute. Bergman and Rossellini went to see Claudel, who lectured them on the purpose of the oratorio, and how important it was that Joan remain fixed throughout; nevertheless, he was prevailed upon to attend a dress rehearsal before rendering his verdict. At the end of the performance, Joan's final lines echoed through the nearly empty theater: "It is joy that is strong. It is love that is stronger. It is God that is strongest of all." As everyone in the cast waited tensely, Claudel rose slowly and said aloud, "And Ingrid is even stronger." And thus permission was granted to go ahead. Successful engagements followed in London, Barcelona, and Stockholm, though in Sweden, to which Bergman had not returned in sixteen years, a vicious attack was unleashed against her in the media.

It was next decided to put the oratorio on film, though it is not immediately clear why. Bergman told Robin Wood that it was filmed "more or less to have as a souvenir for ourselves," but this seems hard to believe given what it cost to produce this full-length film in color (Rossellini's first), a cost that was never to be recouped. Perhaps Rossellini felt this was his chance to redeem himself, and given his deliberate inattention to Claudel's original design, his remark to a Parisian interviewer at the time of the film's release must strike us as disingenuous (and political): "Since Claudel did the scenario, and not me, I hope that this film marks the reconciliation of the critics with my work. I am a simple man, and I don't want to be a man who's all alone."[3] In any case, the director was pleased with it, and he told Truffaut and Rohmer, interviewing him in 1954 for Cahiers du cinéma , "It's a very strange film; I know that it will be said that my involution has become so extreme that I've gone underground. But it is not at all a filmed play, but a film, and I would even say that it's neorealistic, in the sense that I always sought."[4]

Like his other films of this period, it struck the most sensitive (or most enthusiastic) commentators as evidence of a new order of filmmaking. Truffaut, in a contemporary review in Arts , employed another version of the rhetoric that had been applied so generously to Voyage to Italy a year earlier:

As it's necessary, to appreciate Claudel, to take his words literally, exactly for what they're worth, it's necessary, to like Roberto Rossellini's film, to rediscover the innocence of a spectator seeing the film for the first time. Twenty years of allusive and elliptical cinema, and several thousand films which only exist in terms of each other make a film as elementary as Jeanne au bûcher look like a dangerous and abstract avant-garde enterprise.[5]


Theater Arts magazine at this same time quoted Bergman in a revealing moment of wish fulfillment, the understandable product of many years of coping with Rossellini's unorthodox methods:

I think Roberto has made as great a break with standard technique and style with Joan as he did with Open City . He has changed his way of working, too. For the first time, I think, he carefully planned every step of every shot in great detail. The story and dialogue were there and could not be tampered with. The result was that all his creative energy and talent were concentrated on invention and direction.[6]

Unfortunately, the film fared no better than his other films of the period in finding an audience. The minister of education in France decided to distribute it throughout the country (an interesting foreshadowing of the mass-audience, didactic direction in which Rossellini would move for the first time four years later with India ), but these plans fell through. In fact, the film was never released in France at all, nor anywhere else outside of Italy, and its run there, from September 1954 to August 1955, gained a pitiful 18.5 million lire, barely a quarter of the amount earned by the unsuccessful Voyage to Italy .[7] The film did find a few supporters, but most commentators were negative. Alessandro Ferraù, for example, writing in the February 1955 issue of Bollettino dello spettacolo , gloated: "The film is a big fiasco. . . . What surprises us is that a production company and a distributor even agreed to produce and distribute such a film. It's impossible to guess at what motivated Rossellini's direction . . . but it is undoubtedly harmful, considering the inevitable financial consequences, that such films should be made.[8]

The net effect of this initial hostility and lack of distribution is that all but one of the copies of the film have disappeared. For many years, it was occasionally seen on the art-house circuit in Europe, but no longer. Even as far back as 1958, Patrice Hovald complained about not being part of the "very small number of people who've been at rare, more or less private, projections of the film."[9] As recently as ten or twelve years ago, Baldelli, Rondolino, and Guarner were reporting a copy at the Centro sperimentale di cinematografia, but this copy also seems to have disappeared in the interim, and the authorities there have no record of it. The director of the Cineteca nazionale in Turin told me in 1984 that the only extant print of the film is in their collection, but that it is in such bad condition that it has been screened only once in the last seven or eight years. Since I have been unable to see the film, therefore, the following comments will necessarily be secondhand.

In many ways Giovanna d'Arco al rogo can be seen as a bridge between those films of the late forties and early fifties that purported to be "documentaries of the individual," and the films of the sixties and seventies that use an individual character to anchor the depiction of a specific historical period. Rondolino, for example, links it directly to the later historical figures whose "substantially static nature" becomes "the center around which turn the story, the facts, and the minor characters." He goes on to say:

Joan of Arc is continually surrounded by slow, almost imperceptible movements of the camera, so that the character who is emblematic of a certain hu-


man condition also becomes a symbol of an anthropocentric vision of the world and of history, which, in different ways and in different accents, has already appeared in Rossellini's films. But the stylistic experimentation—the long takes, the slow and frayed editing, the tonal and coloristic relations between the background and the characters, the dramatic and symbolic use of the set design—also becomes a kind of technical essay, an original attempt to solve diverse and often complicated problems of expression.[10]

Guarner's discussion of the film, despite his minority view that it has "no close connection with [Rossellini's] film work or his usual preoccupations," is suggestive. Since the whole film is seen in flashback, as Joan mounts to heaven with Brother Domenico, Guarner suggests that everything in it is thus seen through Joan's point of view; later, he stresses the circles the camera makes around her, especially the "high-angle shot of people forming a ring around Joan" and gingerly offers the "tentative interpretation" that we are seeing Joan through the viewpoint of God and that "the whole film is only the point of view on a point of view."[11] He does not follow up on the implications of this doubled infolding, but it seems related to the self-reflexivity at work in the portraits of Bergman in Siamo donne and of Magnani in Una voce umana .[12]

Probably the most detailed account of the film appeared in the fall of 1962 in a special issue on the subject "Joan of Arc on the Screen" in the French journal Études cinématographiques . Included in the issue were two opposing articles on Rossellini's version. In one article, a more or less conventional Catholic critic objects to the film, and in the other, a critic associated with Cahiers du cinéma replies in vaguely phenomenological terms. It may be useful to summarize them briefly here in order to understand better the critical context for Rossellini's films of this period, something that is always more important on the Continent, of course, than in the Anglo-American world of filmmaking.

In the first article Michel Estève argues that the film is "a scarcely convincing work, in large part mistaken," because in it Rossellini continually opts for the "marvelous" rather than the truly "supernatural." Estève maintains that the oratorio itself was one of Claudel's weaker efforts, and that Rossellini has gone even further in the mistaken direction of the "Christian marvelous," away from "reality." Rossellini's techniques and "gimmicks" do not give us the "authentic supernatural," which is "neither the illusory nor the ordinary. On the contrary, it claims that it is inseparable from the natural and that it conforms to it, but the natural seen under a certain light which one is not used to seeing." Despite its subject, Rossellini does not in this film give us any sense of "the other dimension" of the universe, which is inaccessible to reason but can truly affect our lives, as do Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and Dreyer's Joan of Arc film. What Rossellini's film lacks is "this union of the supernatural and the everyday, this weight of reality," as well as any sense of transcendence.[13]

The response was written by the director's ardent supporter Claude Beylie. For him, this version is "the most eloquent of all the versions of Joan on the screen, the most ethereal, but which also attaches itself at the same time to the most intimate fibers of the flesh." Beylie asks if "I dare say that we are, with Rossellini, no longer on the level of the flesh, nor of the spirit, nor of the soul, but in a sort of fourth dimension which brings them all together in a vertiginous


maelstrom that I will call the serenity of the abyss?" He sees Joan as directly in line with Rossellini's other suffering heroines; here, too, the camera follows her with cold ferocity. (Beylie's formulation once again raises the significant question of the director's ambivalent depictions of woman as victim, especially since this time she is even burned at the stake.) According to the critic, "Giovanna d'Arco al rogo is really an act of pure contemplation, where the cinematic spectacle is reduced to its simplest expression, its most primitive , in the sense that one says of certain rocks that they are primitive." All that Estève has called banal Beylie sees as "meant to symbolize the mediocrity of earthly instincts" and Estève has missed all that is eternal about her: "Everything happens in reality as if Rossellini had tried to demystify the traditional marvelous by an over-abundance of realism, obtaining a marvelous of the second degree, deeper than the first, whose equivalent I am unaware of in the entire history of the seventh art . . . a kind of unseen interior marvelous, in which reality has been totally recreated by dream, and vice-versa."[14]

There is a hint in Beylie's remarks of that dynamic relation between realism and expressionism, documentary and fantasy, that we have been tracing in Rossellini's films. What is more interesting about the above encounter, however, is how firmly both positions, though concerned primarily with the film's spiritual dimension, are anchored in a discourse of realism. To speak of Rossellini, at least until recently, is always to speak in these terms.


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18— Giovanna d'Arco al Rogo (1954)
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