Considered in many circles to not only be the greatest Joan of Arc film ever made but one of the greatest films ever made, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc “reinvents the world from the ground up” in a silent masterpiece of visual emotional gravity (Schneider). Using highly abridged and reworked transcripts from the actual inquisitions and trial of Joan, the tight camera angles, terrifying beauty of the performer’s faces, and clear references to the brutality and irrationality of World War I, this film is a true masterpiece that will continue to spellbind audiences with its melancholy humanness.
This was an early film that I heard murmurings about in the past, but really had no jumping excitement to run out and grab. The story of Joan has always been something that has captivated me, however, and this year alone I have probably consumed at least two books on the subject including Mark Twain’s novel that he considered to be his best work. Various images from the prints and box seemed familiar to me, but besides that, there wasn’t much context. I saw the Criterion at the library, and knowing it was on Schneider’s list I grabbed it. I am so happy I did, and Criterion’s gorgeous print and brilliant pairing with Richard Einhorn’s score immerses one in a beautiful and destructive alternate reality for eighty-two minutes.
Striking sets, completely ahead-of-its-time camerawork, and Renée Falconetti’s morally and emotionally shattering performance all work in concert to evoke maximum emotional carnage. Essentially, the film is a series of impeccably framed, gorgeous, high-contrast faces performing an interrogation of Joan. As the film progresses, the entire range of human emotion is presented by these truly captivating countenances. What the film is visually is where the perceptive value of the digital restoration (and mastery of the camera) really makes every pore, every puddle of tears, every shock, and every blissful gaze pop off the screen and made me feel wholly sympathetic and empathetic to all of the characters in the piece – most notably Falconetti’s. While many elements of the execution of the film lend themselves to absolute worship in performance, it is Falconetti’s Joan that is truly one of the greatest performances ever recorded, all the more surprising considering this was only one of two roles she ever played on film having been primarily a theatrical actress. As a theatrical actor myself, I am incredibly impressed. Many performances try to be what this is, and I couldn’t help thinking of Hathaway’s I Dreamed A Dream in Les Miserables (which I didn’t particularly care for) attempting an uncanny impression of Falconetti’s Joan… But after seeing this, and after seeing many actresses attempt rapturous despair, it is clear that I haven’t seen anything like this. There’s simply nothing close.
What I found to be the most amazing about this entire piece isn’t even the script, direction, and execution, but the story behind why I’m even able to watch it at all. For a piece like this to be a commercial flop that is lauded by critics in the early days of cinema is not a story that is unique to Passion, however, to be solely printed on nitrate stock and virtually disappear from the face of the earth for sixty years and then miraculously re-emerge from a janitor’s closet in an insane asylum before its demolition in 1981 makes this reel the stuff of legend. Everything stood in the way of this piece’s genesis, from political and cultural upheaval from the French insisting that Dreyer couldn’t do the story any justice to the seven million franc price tag of the authentic set. Still, Dreyer wrote and directed an amazing piece that is sincerely a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is even more interesting that there are a variety of places on the Internet where one can legally watch the film for free (save for the lack of soundtrack and subtitles) and almost enjoy the piece as a gift to the world.
Simply put, one of the greatest films and performances I have ever seen, and I am grateful it still exists to be able to experience it.
I watched this film on Criterion, #62, although you can watch the film in its entirety legally online in many places and would just need to add your own score. The haunting score on Criterion, Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light” is a spectacular addition if you have the chance to see it.