Ingrid Bergman is a miracle of sensitivity, giving a luminous performance, in Roberto Rossellini’s Giovanna d’Arco al rogo. (Actually, I saw the French-language version, Jeanne au bûcher, but with Bergman’s irreplaceable voice, not Claude Nollier’s.) How can Bergman be brilliant here when she was dreadful in Joan of Arc (Victor Fleming, 1948)? Answer: Rossellini.
Like the earlier film, this one is based on a (different) theatrical piece Bergman did onstage (in a touring revival): the 1930s oratorio, based on a medieval miracle play, with music by Arthur Honegger and libretto by Paul Claudel. In contrast to the choral singing, Bergman’s Joan is among the non-singing roles.
Jean Renoir’s trilogy drawing on theatrical artifice had begun, starring Rossellini’s former partner, Anna Magnani (The Golden Coach, 1953). (Bergman herself would star in the trilogy’s concluding film.) Moreover, Bergman wanted another crack at the role. This Joan, surrounded by stage-night and blatantly artificial stars, bounds through space to no clear redemptive conclusion, glimpsing her history below, which is interwoven with the people of France, who have turned on her. The film nearly begins with Joan’s being burned at the stake and nearly ends with that. Joan’s existence is perhaps beyond Time. Is her ordeal recurrent and (as her noting the priest’s absence) changing, as if to torture her further?
Indeed, the whole film is gloriously ambiguous. Consider the stage-lit wash of rosiness that may underscore Joan’s identification with “the Rose of Innocence,” but which jarringly draws our attention to Joan/Bergman’s lipsticked lips and rouged cheeks.
Rossellini’s Joan is repeatedly identified with circles—of angels, children, humanity. When last we see her she is heading up, chillingly alone. This theatrical rise, which questions God’s participation, rivets our attention to Joan’s own doubts about her destiny.
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