One of the most influential directors in modern cinema is the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer. The name may sound like a very boring film library screening, but despite his reputation as a cult director (a very boring one, that is), his influence is easy to see in more recent works. In The passion of Joan of Arc, a 1928 silent film, Dreyer depicts the trial of the French saint. In an attempt to be faithful to reality, the script was based on the original surviving records. The innovation is that almost all the footage consists of close-ups of the actress Maria Falconetti. The famous scenes in Sergio Leone’s Westerns, framing Clint Eastwood’s face (a technique later copied by Tarantino), are not very different from what Dreyer did fifty years earlier. The trial scene in Dancer in the dark is entirely indebted to this way of filming and has influenced other directors who have been able to use the close-up as a narrative device. In this type of sequence, the actor’s or actress’s face fills the entire screen and both what they say and their facial expressions are used by the director to tell a story.
Is it true that the face is a reflection of the soul? Can you tell anything about a person’s psychology or character just by looking at their face? For a long time, some scientists thought so. For example, the Italian physician and criminologist Cesare Lombroso developed a theory that a person’s propensity for crime could be determined by analysing various physical characteristics of the individual. Lombroso made a complicated classification of types of criminals and explained that there were certain morphological and anatomical aspects that could predict whether someone was a criminal. He believed that in most cases being a criminal was an innate genetic tendency, and therefore if a person had this characteristic, they should be removed from society, as nothing could prevent them from becoming a danger to other people.
Was there any scientific basis for his postulates? Suppose there was a gene for criminality or aggressiveness. Lombroso claimed that the innate tendency to crime was linked to certain physical characteristics. If this were true, these characteristics would have to be determined by different genes at the same time. Lombroso’s postulates would imply that the gene for criminality would always be inherited together with the genes that regulate the physical characteristics indicative of criminality. This would be the only way to correlate appearance with criminal propensity, contradicting one of the most established laws of science, Mendel’s third law, which states that different copies of different genes are inherited independently. In other words, if there were a crime gene – which there is not – it is biologically impossible for it to always be inherited along with those that regulate other physical characteristics. This invalidates the entire theory proposed by Cesare Lombroso.
Today, no physical trait can predict whether a person is likely to be a violent criminal or not. Although Lombroso’s work could be classified as pseudoscience, from time to time there are authors who defend updated versions of this theory. More recently, the relationship between physical appearance and criminality has been called psychomorphology, and there are some books on the subject that pretend to be scientific but are not. There is no such thing as «the face of a criminal». Therefore, no matter how closely they looked at Joan of Arc’s face at the Rouen trial, they would never have been able to tell whether the visions telling her to drive the English out of France were a divine sign or a sign of potential psychopathy.