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Is It Really a Great Movie? Part Thirteen: The Passion of Joan of Arc

by dan heaton

Using Roger Ebert's Great Movies book as a guide, this series of articles will focus on all films included on his list that previously have escaped my notice. Since all lists are subjective, I am not treating Ebert's choices as the essential selection of films. However, his essays offer the perfect chance for me to explore both classics and lesser-known pictures from around the globe.

The tumultuous story of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the more unique tales in movie history. The Danish filmmaker was forced to re-cut the film with alternative footage when the original master print was destroyed. His nationality also generated considerable controversy in France because he did not come from Joan of Arc’s homeland. More problems arose when the alternate version also was lost, and only badly edited versions existed for 50 years. In 1981, an original print of the 1928 edition appeared in Oslo at a mental institution. This lead to a complete restoration by the Cinematheque Francaise four years later. The Criterion DVD edition includes a silent version and newer audio called “Voices of Light,” which provides opera accompaniment and enhances the film’s power.

After my torturous experience watching Broken Blossoms last week, my enthusiasm was pretty low to see another silent film. However, I expected that the combination of no D.W. Griffith and a talented Danish filmmaker would assuage my worries, and Dreyer does not disappoint. This highly unique picture offers a riveting tale that still haunts me several days afterward. The major revelation is the emotionally draining title performance by Renee Maria Falconetti in her only film role. Wearing no makeup, she goes through every range of emotion while facing the nasty interrogators. Her performance is so raw and true that it even works when shot almost entirely in close-ups. While many early films resemble stage productions and are comprised of medium shots, this picture offers a close, intimate look at Joan of Arc’s turmoil.

The story avoids presenting the details of Joan’s life and instead focuses solely on the events following her capture by the British. Working from the actual transcripts of the 29 cross-examinations, Dreyer brings them together in a striking opening sequence. Bishop Cauchon (Eugene Silvain) and his fellow interrogators bombard Joan with brutal questions about her religious beliefs. The extreme close-ups create grotesque images that inspire horror and immediately grab the audience. Joan’s mix of sorrow and pure spiritual ideas appear during these scenes and make her an engaging character. Dreyer reportedly shot Falconetti over and over to find just the right emotional tone. While this approach is pretty cruel, it almost certainly contributes to Joan’s haunting appearance. As tears stream down her cheeks, we feel her sorrow directly and despise her unfortunate captors.

The remaining scenes never reach the pinnacle of the opening sequence, but they stay compelling due to Falconetti and the original filming style. Rudolph Mate’s camera delves in and out of the peculiar sets and remains very close to all the characters. One eerie moment involves the torture chamber, where the captors bring Joan before the spiked tools. However, they don’t use the machines, but instead allow them to intimidate the girl. Another grisly scene involves some blood-letting from her arm because Joan has fallen ill. The act looks extremely real, which makes sense because a double’s arm actually is stabbed. This moment is very quick, but it contributes to the strange Expressionist tone that permeates the entire picture.

Roger Ebert quotes French Director Jean Cocteau’s description of The Passion of Joan of Arc as “an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist.” This description accurately explains the inexplicable qualities that make this film such a memorable experience. It feels like nothing else you’ll ever see, with Joan’s final decision being sad even when it’s expected. Her death scene fails to disappoint and inspires a riot that includes some excellent staging. The scene is very effective, but it only works because of Falconetti’s classic performance. Combined with the “Voices of Light” soundtrack, her expressive facial motions deliver a lasting experience. It may not rank among the premier Great Movies, but this surprising silent film earns a secure place in the discussion.

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