Wednesday, July 25, 2007
La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928)
(Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928, France)
This classic silent film existed in a few different versions for years until a print was discovered in an insane asylum in Norway. The version shown today was struck from that one and restored by the Cinematheque Francaise sometime in the mid-1980s. It is a vast improvement from the muddied one I saw on a rental during film school. A short prologue showing a medieval manuscript which intertitles inform us is a record of the trial of Joan of Arc, revealing Joan of Arc as a human being in her own words. Eight years previously, in 1920 Joan of Arc was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and this might have prompted renewed interest in Dreyer to examine the historical record for film. However the legacy Jeanne d'Arc has left in collective memory in over four centuries since her death at the stake seems never to have abated: given the many representations of her: in opera, novels,theater, and film.
Dreyer's film stands out for the ascetic purity and economy in the film: the use of extreme close-ups, a very sparse set, bright almost harsh lighting and an equally sparse outdoor set. There is a slow rhythm bulding between the interior shots of the trial as Joan answers questions posed to her by the clergy seeking to find her guilty of sacrilege and it builds in intensity until the eventual death at the stake before a sad, reverent crowd that riots after the burning of Joan.
The actors do not wear makeup which, from all that I've read of this film, was rather unheard of for the silent film era. Dreyer psychologically pits Joan against her captors by filming both in extreme closeup: low angle for Joan, higher angle for her judges. It is very effective, emphasizing how powerless Joan is in the grand scheme of things. The filming is rather economical in that regard too, consisting of point of view back and forth extreme closeups.
This was Maria Falconetti's only film and as Joan, she gives one of the greatest performances ever seen on film. Her acting consists in (similar to most silent actors) acting with one's eyes (and in this case, face), yet she also conveys a huge amount of emotion in her restrained performance: she never ever 'mugs' for the camera but gazes head on, with intelligence, emotion, sadness, and fear that the historical Joan must have met her judges with and also a measure of the simplicity of a medieval peasant. She is alternately touching, heartbreaking and devastating in the end to watch, just superbly unforgettable. The austere beauty Dreyer gave to this film and Falconetti's devastating performance are justifiable reasons to watch this late silent film masterpiece.
Out of the silent film era, there are several films that redefined the cinema and raised film to the level of art. Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc remains one beautiful shining example of what cinema can achieve as art.