The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) dir. Carl Dreyer
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugène Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz
By Alan Bacchus
The legend and mystique around Dreyer’s landmark film certainly helps its appreciation – the original version of the silent masterpiece appeared to have been lost after a number of fires destroyed what was thought to be the only remaining complete film elements. But when a near complete version was found in a janitor's closet at an Oslo mental institution in 1981, along with an exhaustive restoration, The Passion of Joan of Arc was rediscovered.
My moderately articulate words cannot possibly describe how great this film is. We all know the story of Joan of Arc, the teenaged French peasant who heard the voice of God command her to join the French army and lead them to victory for the nation. Dreyer’s film picks up the story when she was captured by the English then imprisoned, tried and eventually executed.
Dreyer distills the production down to its bare essential elements using a few unadorned interior sets – the courtroom, Saint Joan’s prison cell and other rooms in the prison. The walls are white with little in the way of art decoration or props – just the powerful words of the judge, jury and executioners and the expressive face of Joan, played by Maria Falconetti (sometimes referred to as Renée).
The story of Ms. Falconetti is even more legendary than the recovered film print. As lead actress it was her one and only performance, which emphasizes the astonishing artistic achievement. It’s a performance that stands alongside Max Schreck’s as one of the great ‘one and only’ film acting roles in cinema history.
Dreyer almost exclusively frames Falconetti in a close-up, rarely placing her in a two shot with other actors and rarely in anything wide enough to show below her shoulders. Within these constraints, Falconetti expresses the anguish, fear and courage of the heroine with amazing intensity in arguably the greatest ever female performance on film. Rumour has it that Dreyer’s direction of Falconetti was so emotionally draining it pushed her into emotional collapse, thus she never acted again.
Even if Falconetti’s performance was merely adequate, the film is a masterpiece based on Dreyer’s stunning stylistic visual treatment and camerawork. His distinct compositions are simply astounding. The minimized aesthetic allows him to create a fresh visual dynamic by experimenting with creative and unorthodox framing. At Joan’s loneliest moments, watch Dreyer frame her awkwardly in the bottom half of the picture engulfed by the negative space above, and at her most powerful with her eyes framed at the top of the screen with the rest of her face and head dominating the lower half.
No shot is wasted and everything has a purpose. Dreyer’s stark white colour scheme and his reliance on close-ups emphasize the duel of wills between Joan and her captors. The way he moves his camera feels thoroughly modern as well. The camera rarely sits still and is constantly roving throughout the courtroom, panning and tilting around the frame to guide the viewers’ attention and pushing into the English characters’ faces to boldly emphasize their intimidating strength. Dreyer exclusively holds on Falconetti’s close-up repeatedly with the same frame size, subliminally conveying her resolute faith in God.
Dreyer makes up visually for what he loses in his minimalist mise-en-scene by using a sharp editing style, which resembles how filmmakers cut their films today. He uses multiple close-ups from different angles and multiple reaction shots, which control the pacing of the scenes. In fact, if I didn’t know about the film it could pass for one of those modern films shot in the style of old silent pictures – like the Lumiere Bros’ omnibus film or the opening sequence of PTA’s Magnolia.
It’s obvious that The Passion of Joan of Arc works well as a metaphor for the Christian crucifixion. And anyone who's seen both this and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ will see the heavy influence, with Gibson paying direct homage by borrowing the 'Passion' from the title.
Dreyer’s lasting message is more secular than Gibson's. If you’ve ever felt doubt in yourself, or loneliness or questioned your faith in something you believe in, The Passion of Joan of Arc is as good a remedy as any confession.