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August 20, 2012 / John Thomas

Revisiting ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’

About eight years after she was canonized, in 1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer made a film on Joan of Arc. It was called The Passion of Joan of Arc. While the English government banned it, the Catholic Church called for alterations to be made. Both were uneasy with the very raw portrayal of the trial of Joan of Arc. While they were keen to canonize her, they were clearly weary of artists attempting to continuously rediscover the truth about her and the manner in which she was tried and executed. Such was the irony. Soon enough, the original copy of the film went missing. Some say it was destroyed by fire. Dreyer made several attempts to reassemble a version of it from the outtakes and surviving prints, but it was unsuccessful and the man died believing that his film was lost forever.

But, as it is often the case, ghosts from the past have a way of emerging from the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times. So it was with this film. In 1981, while cleaning a janitor’s closet in a mental institution in Oslo, Norway, a complete print of the original version of the film was discovered. It was digitized and widely circulated, and later, came to be acknowledged as one of the finest films in twentieth century.

In contrast to the extravagance and glamour of contemporary films, this film is silent, although accompanied by a few haunting orchestral pieces from beginning to end; this film is in black and white; this film was mostly shot in a studio; this film has no special effects; and most importantly, the heroine of this film have no make-up on, rather all she has are unmanicured fingers, a wrinkled face and an exhausted yet determined body. It is raw. It is matter-of-fact. For today’s audience, this film belongs to an aesthetic world that is uninviting and less stimulating.

Unlike the Hollywood film on Joan of Arc, produced in 1999, where the court room that tried Joan was filled with men, women and children, in this film, the court room was filled only with men; not just any men, but men of high ranking in church and state, who seemed to take a certain sadistic pleasure in taunting and harassing the sole woman in their midst, Joan (a role beautifully played by Renee Jeanne Falconetti). Their repressed male selfs appear to be fearful and anxious of who Joan is. Her determination to put on visible markers of masculinity, her exceptional boldness and her claims to divine visitation are beyond what their patriarchal fantasies and imaginations can hold. After all, how could she cross dress like a man? How could she talk back to men? And more importantly, how could she claim to have communicated with God? Is a woman ever capable of such feat? Her inquisitors are perturbed by who she is and hence, they feel the urge to discipline and control her – something the film effectively portrays.

Besides the more direct and visible intimidation techniques, for these high ranking men, religion and sacrament become effective tools of discipline and control. They take advantage of their captive’s vulnerability, and employ religion and sacrament to confuse her rationality, to convict her, and to even force a confession out her, which she later retracts. It is worth noting that Joan is a deeply devout woman, and this is a characteristic that, on the one hand, allows the religious elite to manipulate her, and on the other, becomes a source of immense courage for her to be herself. In other words, as a devout Catholic living in the middle ages, she is a prisoner of the dominant religious discourse of the time which insisted on the necessity of priesthood and sacraments for personal redemption. This is the reason why, in the film, she insists on receiving the holy communion, as she foresees her death, from the same church fathers that are taunting her. Of course, the church fathers take advantage of this situation and use the sacrament of holy communion as a bargaining chip for extracting a confession out of her. If it is her faith that entraps her, it is also her faith that eventually empowers her to not succumb to the pressures of her inquisitors, and therein, retract her confession. She realises that the intermediaries between human beings and God, who she had been taught to value and respect, are actually people sent by the devil “to make me suffer”. She begins to previlege her own direct encounter with God rather than the structures of organized faith that do not recognize who she is and keeps her a prisoner. Ultimately, as she retracts her confession and gets ready for her execution, she realises that although the stake awaits her, she has been set free by her faith.

This old film, which had been banned and almost censored, which had been lost and found, continues to be relevant today. If this was a film that had a popular market today, the guardians of institutionalized religion, who have always taken a liking to censorship and bans would have been quick to silence it since the various questions that it raises regarding gender and spirituality continue to remain unresolved and uncomfortable.

June 6, 2011 / John Thomas

Return of the Inquisitor

Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose revolves around a series of murders that take place in a Benedictine abbey of the fourteenth century. One of the intriguing structures in the abbey is the library. Except for the librarian, no one else is permitted to enter this library. If anyone attempts to enter, they are murdered. For the library treasured not only texts that proclaimed the ‘truth’ but also texts that discussed matters that are ‘heretical’. What if an innocent monk driven by curiosity exposed himself to the latter? What if he comes to know things he should not be knowing? What if he turned into yet another rebel, conspiring to bring down the Catholic Church? Such was the fear.

Some days back, the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC) was overcome with a similar fear. They came out with a public statement demanding the withdrawal of the new Class 10 Social Science text book brought out by the State Council Educational Research and Training (SCERT). The bishops’ council alleged that the text book was part of a conspiracy to malign the Catholic Church and undermine the secular fabric of the nation, and therein, an act of treason against the nation. It was feared that the text book would mislead students and generate a bad impression about the Catholic Church. Hence, the demand for the withdrawal and rewriting of the text book.

The text book under question was written by a thirteen member committee, and was approved by a sub-committee and a committee comprising of experts in the discipline and teachers belonging to different political persuasions and biases. It was also approved by a textbook commission, that was set up on the recommendations of the K. N. Panikkar Committee following a similar uproar made by the Catholic Church in 2008. This commission not only had some of the distinguished academicians of the country but also a Catholic priest who is the headmaster of PEM High School, Thiruvanchur. It is after going through such a rigorous process of scrutiny that the text book came to be finalized and published. The attempt of the bishops’ council to write off this process as a premeditated ‘conspiracy’ is an indication of its contempt for democratic norms and processes – and also a blatant attempt to hold the entire state and its people ransom to their particular agenda.

The statement brought out by the KCBC is rather vague as to what in the text book offended their sensibility. One of the allegations is that the text book portrays feudalism in Europe as a creation of the Catholic Church. Besides proving that the church leaders have not read the text book themselves, this allegation is unfounded and baseless. The text book utters only two statements about the relation between feudalism and the Catholic Church: While one talks about the Catholic Church having enforced strict control over access to knowledge and rational thought during the feudal period (p. 10), the other talks about the feudal lords and the Catholic Church having suppressed the Graeco-Roman culture (p. 12). Except for these two assertions, there is no other mention or any effort to indicate that feudalism was the creation of the Catholic Church.

As per the KCBC statement, it is the first chapter of the text book that has caused much discomfort to the Catholic Church. This chapter narrates the history of early modern Europe, covering themes such as ‘Renaissance’, ‘Reformation’, ‘Counter-Reformation’, ‘Geographical Discoveries’, ‘Scientific Revolution’ and ‘Enlightenment’. It is primarily in the context of discussions on ‘Reformation’ and ‘Counter-Reformation’ that frequent references are made to the Catholic Church. These references include the systemic corruption and intolerance that had crept into the Catholic Church, the prevalence of practices such as the sale and purchase of holy offices and the sale of indulgence against which reformers like Martin Luther spoke out, and the brutalities of counter-reformation manifested in the inquisition and forced conversions around the world. In citing these references, the text book has only mentioned what several historians, including Catholic historians, have come to acknowledge and write about over the years. None of these facts and events of history are unfamiliar to readers and writers of European history. The accounts of numerous men, women and children subjected to the worst kinds of torture; the numerous women cast as witches and burnt at stake; the murder of reformers, scientists and philosophers; the persecution and massacre of Jews, Muslims, Atheists and others; and the use of civil authority to instil terror and fear in the minds of people, are all there in the public domain. In fact, if at all one was to raise any complaint, it would be that considering there is so much more information now available on the horrors of inquisition and counter-reformation, the text book could have shown less restraint and said much more.

In raking up this controversy, it is the art of history writing that has once again become the casualty. The wounds inflicted by the Sangh Parivar on it less than a decade back has still not healed. And now, the Catholic Church wants to follow suit. Both these institutions share a common feeling of threat as far as history is concerned. Both fear that if history is written with honesty, in accordance to the rules and procedures of the craft, many ghosts from the past would come to haunt them. Thus, both feel the need to tamper with the craft, and invent a history that would meet their narrow political and religious agendas. What makes the present demand of the Catholic Church in Kerala to rewrite the text book even more ridiculous is their enthusiasm to suppress that history for which even Pope John Paul II had offered a public apology and asked for forgiveness. In 2000, from the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and again in 2004, during the launch of a book on the inquisition in Vatican, Pope John Paul II asked forgiveness for the series of torture, trials and executions unleashed by the Church across Europe in its hunt for ‘heretics’; for the sins it committed against people of other faiths and cultures; for the sins it committed against the dignity of women and minorities; and for its violation of human rights. However, this acknowledgement of sins committed and pleas made for forgiveness by the Pope seem to have had no effect on the Catholic Church in Kerala.

History as it is presented in the text book is not the only way in which the past may be understood. As in every writing of the past, it is only an interpretation of the past, albeit one that is reached through a consensus among various practitioners of the discipline, by following certain rules and procedures of the discipline. It doesn’t have any pretensions of providing the final word on matters of the past. In fact, right through the text book, the writers pose several questions to the students so that they would not be just satisfied by what the text says but would take an initiative to probe further and reach at their own conclusions about the past. However, the Catholic Church, for whom canons and dogmas are integral to who they are and what they are, finds it difficult to comprehend this democracy of interpretations.

This is not the first time that the Catholic Church in Kerala has demanded the withdrawal and banning of literature from the public domain. It has done so before. And what it points to is a deep-seated insecurity. The crisis that confronts various religious institutions, such as the Catholic Church, is while its unconscious self knows that it has failed in living up to what it originally set out to do, its conscious self does not want to acknowledge that and wants to remain in a state of denial. Hence, any idea or text that reminds them of their unconscious makes them extremely uncomfortable and defensive, therein bringing out the inquisitor in them alive. The Catholic Church has to come to terms with this reality rather than chase the ghosts of its imagination.