La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc (AKA: The Passion of Joan of Arc) – 1928
Director – Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring – Maria Falconetti
Quite possibly Carl Theodor Dreyer’s most influential work, The Passion of Joan of Arc owes a lot of it’s notoriety and it’s impact to it’s lead actress, Maria Falconetti. The fear, and passion thatFalconetti conjures on camera througout the duration of the trial of Joan, is not merely some plot point to enhance the story, it IS the story.
Staged almost entirely within the courtroom or her jail cell, the story of Joan of Arc is fairly straight forward, so much so that most people know the jist of it even if they don’t know that they know it. Joan, the famous saint, and girl warrior, is on trial for her alleged heresy (actually she was only officially tried for wearing in-appropriate men’s clothing). During this trial, everything from her value structure to her manner of dress is drawn into question. Evidence is forged, and heavy eccliesiatic persuasion is used. Through it all Joan held to her beliefs, and was eventually sentenced to death. This is not a spoiler, it’s too well known to have spoiled anything.
From the opening shots of the courtroom, I was immediately struck by how upclose and invasive the camera work seemed to be. Not invasive of the actors, but of me. Shot in striking, uncomfortable close-ups, Joan’s accusers seem warped and distended. Each face (with the exception of Joan’s) takes on a sinister look, frowning, sneering, and conspiring with a simple furrow of the brow. Joan on the other hand, seems to have a perpetually wet, upturned gaze, similar to a lot of religious paintings. She is given more room in the frame and as a result, she serves as a respite for us as viewers when she is on screen.
I tried my damnedest to watch it in it’s original silent state, but after catching myself nodding off a bit, I turned on the optional audio track of accompanying music. Let me tell you…this helps SO much! The music serves as a balast not only for the dramatic action happening on screen, but for pacing, dramatic effect, and as an additional means of engaging the audience.
One thing I was surprised about when watching this, was the over-all quality of image that this version (the Criterion Collection edition) offered. I am used to these older films being so grainy and damaged that they seem almost blurry, so it was quite a surpise to find that the print was clear as a bell, with only a few scratches and flaws in the picture quality. Another final critique, since this story is based on actual documentation of the court proceedings, the reach of the story seemed lacking. I would have liked to have heard more about Joan’s deeds before her trial, whether or not they were truthful or distortions put forth by her accusers, it would have helped to liven up the story a bit.
By and large, The Passion of Joan of Arc was a pleasant surprise to me. The image quality in particular, but also the acting, and pacing managed to avoid the trappings (read: length) that many other silent films fall into. While there were slow moments, the last scene of the rioting villagers being fought off by palace guards was more than enough to smack me across the face.