This is generally regarded as a 'minor' work by Rossellini, and in a certain sense one can see why its appeal is limited: a filmed document of an Italian production of a French opera; a stagy Catholic confection with a largely static Bergman at its centre. Anyone expecting something to fit alongside the versions of the Jeanne d'Arc narrative by Dreyer (1928) or Bresson (1962) is likely to be disappointed.
However, there is a strong case to be made for 'Giovannia d'Arco al rogo' as a fascinating and overlooked work. Regardless of what one feels about Honegger's somewhat erratic music (which I felt was not without its charm), the film inadvertently raises various questions about cinematic form. It may be a recording of a theatrical staging, but the act of filming transforms the experience of watching such a staging. There is a dialectical tension between the obvious artifice of opera and the documentary reality of the camera. We see Joan of Arc beholding various theatrical tableaux - her trial depicted as an animal fable; an absurd game between monarchs; some village revellers - but at the same time we also see Ingrid Bergman-as-Joan of Arc, and moreover Ingrid Bergman-as-object of Rossellini's camera eye. I was reminded of some of the opulent pageants of Peter Greenaway ('Prospero's Books', 'The Baby of Macon'), who approached some of these paradoxes in a much more self-conscious manner some 40 years on. To make matters even more Brechtian, the reel in the screening I saw was preceded by what appeared to be some promo/actuality footage, featuring the clapping opera house audience and a smiling Bergman in her dressing room; presumably this juxtaposition was not intended by Rossellini himself, but it adds something to the overall experience.
Unfortunately, this film seems destined to be restricted to retrospectives and the occasional archival screening. In the print I saw (apparently an 80s preservation), the colours had faded to a ghostly pallor, presumably a result of Rossellini's use of volatile Eastmancolor stock. Not an obviously bankable choice for DVD distributors, then. But anyone who has an interest in the philosophy of film in relation to theatre, or mixed modes of artistic representation, should watch it if given the opportunity.
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