THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, 1928
Classic Movie Review
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain
Review by CJ Brooks
A chronicle of the trial of Jeanne d'Arc on charges of heresy, and the efforts of her ecclesiastical jurists to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions.
One of the more important tenets of creating a great film is to show the action rather than to speak of it. A film, being a visual medium, depends on its visual interpretations of what we are to feel for any giving scene. It is far better to see a character running then to have him describe to us that he had run or planned to run. No greater need of visual interpretations is there then in a silent film as, aside from the title cards, all of our understanding of the plot is revealed through action. It is then odd that one of the most critically acclaimed films bucks this trend almost entirely.
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, a French film by Dutch director Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jr., is notable for focusing the cameras for a considerable part of the film in close-up, framing the performers without make-up in dull and sparsely decorated sets. The film forces you to concentrate solely on the facial expressions of the actors and actresses in shot, keeping you emotionally involved in whatever sentiment they’re going through. The subtlety of Dreyer’s direction is paired magnificently with the subtle acting of Renée Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc; both of which elevate this film to phenomenal status.
A celebrated stage actress, Falconetti was performing in a comedy when Dreyer happened upon her and somehow realized she would be perfect for the role; which she was, albeit through a somewhat arduous direction from Dreyer who likely convinced her the film business was much too harsh for another consideration (she returned to the stage after the film and never returned to the big screen). Roger Ebert once said that one could not know the history of silent films without knowing the face of Renée Maria Falconetti. As true as this statement is, it ignores the fact that Falconetti’s performance is not just one of the greatest of the silent era but one of the greatest of all times, matching (if not exceeding) performances as superb as Gena Rowland in A Woman Under the Influence or Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver. She spends most of the film transfixed with her mouth agape and her eyes staring distantly but in this limited and lean performance she is somehow able to reveal every stage of grief with but the simplest of gestures. Watch during the trial scene as, hardly moving a muscle, her face transforms from anger to sadness to madness in a matter of seconds.
Based on the original documents from the trial, the film begins with Joan being interrogated by the English courts, follows with her imprisonment and ends with her burning at the stake. Comparisons will likely be made to Christ and the passion plays He inspired. Audiences are hopefully knowledgeable of how Joan finds herself in this predicament as the film, while it does touch on aspects of her incredible story, is more interested in how the world, specifically the English courts, reacted to her actions than the actions themselves. A case can be made, historically and as played by Falconetti, whether or not Joan was insane (in fact, some people question whether or not Falconetti herself was mentally unstable) but Dreyer seems certain to keep an ambiguous opinion. The film makes great use of the panchromatic film which allowed Dreyer to paint his performers in natural and realistic tones. Although he filmed Falconetti in soft light, the faces of most of the judges and court officials are scarred with dark shadows, their wrinkles and blemishes are clearly visible.
Modern audiences might be surprised that such clarity exists in a film produced in the 1920’s. This curiosity could be explained by the fact that the film had been considered lost for over a half-century after a fire destroyed the master negatives until a nearly complete and pristine original print was found in, of all places, a janitor’s closet in a Norwegian mental institution. It may have been to the benefit of Dreyer’s legacy that the film was lost for so long as modern audiences today recognize the sheer genius of the production. When it was released in 1928, the film bombed, having been one of the most expensive films up until then. His next film, Vampyr, also flopped (although considered today to be a classic) and as a result he did not direct another film until the 1940s.
Jeanne d’Arc was originally to be shown without any musical accompaniment, adding to Dreyer’s insistence that audiences keep all of their attention upon the haunting features of Falconetti’s performance. When the film once again began making theatrical rounds in the late 20th century, composer Richard Einhorn wrote a beautiful and stirring oratio to accompany the film. You can find this on the Criterion Collection DVD as an option and, although the film certainly is powerful enough without, it is well worth viewing the film with Einhorn’s addition.
Jeanne d’Arc is not a film you will finish watching with a cheerful disposition. Dreyer and Falconetti do their best to immerse you into what Joan of Arc was likely feeling during her trial and subsequent execution. Few films have been able (or willing) to take so little to work with and create with it the agonizing, claustrophobic, pungent realism that coat Dreyer’s film and Falconetti’s performance. Many, however, have been motivated. Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and the Cohen’s No Country for Old Men are examples of Dreyer’s inspiration (directly or not). Watch Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood or Charlize Theron in Monster as testament to how the power of a subtle performance, such as Falconetti’s, can raise a film to the status of masterpiece. But let us not speak of this film any longer for the film itself can show us its magnificence all on its own.