Thursday, March 31, 2011

#237. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Directed By: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Andre Berley

Trivia:  This film was believed lost until a complete print was found in the closet of a mental institution in Oslo, Norway

Very seldom in life do things come together perfectly, and the same can certainly be said of the cinema. The silver screen’s rich history is chock full of good films, many of which I would even categorize as “great”. It's a rare occurrence, however, when a seemingly perfect one comes along, an artistic triumph of moving images that stirs you with its power and imagination. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is, in my opinion, a perfect film.

The Passion of Joan of Arc recounts the trial and subsequent execution of its title character, the “Maiden of Orleans”, an event that was spearheaded by the religious and political leaders of France in the 15th century. Striving for historical accuracy, the filmmakers relied heavily on the surviving transcripts of the actual trial of Joan of Arc; Joan (Maria Renee Falconetti) is accused of heresy for her insistence that God speaks to her. During the trial, the young girl faces tough questioning from bishops and priests, who are convinced it's the devil, and not God, speaking to Joan. Yet Joan remains steadfast in her beliefs, and when she refuses to recant her claims of divine communication, she is condemned to death, and burned alive at the stake.

One cannot discuss The Passion of Joan of Arc without delving into the performance of Maria Falconetti; my very assertion that it is a perfect film is due, in large part, to her turn as Joan.  Throughout the movie, Dreyer utilizes extreme close-ups when shooting his actors, the majority of which centered on Falconetti. In clear detail, we see the young actress evoke enough pain and suffering in the role to move even the coldest of hearts. As Joan, Falconetti shied away from over-the-top theatrics in favor of a much more subdued interpretation, relying not only on her eyes (which are haunting in their depth of feeling) to convey her character’s anguish, but also her pouting lips, her head tilts, and even the occasional tear running down her cheek. Her Joan of Arc is transformed into something much more than the makings of historical texts and transcripts; in Falconetti’s performance, we get a true sense of this unfortunate girl's torment, and through her talents the film builds to an intensity that is all-encompassing.

My labeling The Passion of Joan of Arc a ‘perfect’ film will undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows, yet I firmly believe it to be the case. With this film, Dreyer transcended standard cinema, rising instead to a level of artistic accomplishment to which few others ascend. Perhaps most amazing of all, The Passion of Joan of Arc not only reached that level, but continues to rest there comfortably...all these years later.


Klaus said...

While The Passion of Joan of Arc is not my favourite silent film, it may well be the finest of the silent era.

Although I'm always dubious to hear the term "perfect" used to describe any movie - in this case, it seems appropriate.

Notwithstanding Maria Falconetti's incredibly moving performance, Dreyer's ability to slowly build the film's intensity, and the beauty which is captured with such simplicity in set design, is wondrous in comparison to the majority of the productions of his day.

Ian said...

I first watched this more than 20 years ago, and despite having seen countless other 'classics' since then, my opinion of JOAN OF ARC hasn't changed: it is perfect cinema.

When talking about other movies I love, I often hedge a bit by calling them 'one of my top ten' or 'one of my top five'. But I've never had a problem calling JOAN OF ARC my single favorite film of all time.

Dave Becker said...

Thanks for stopping by:

@Klaus: Your point of how Dreyer "slowly builds the film's intensity" is well taken, and what I find amazing is how he does so while relying so heavily on the actual transcripts from Joan's trial. It truly is a work of genius.

@Ian: I absolutely agree with you, and I also occasionally do the same thing when talking about my favorite films (using terms like "one of my favorites"). As far as silent cinema is concerned, however, JOAN OF ARC is at the top of the list.