SILENT MOVIES: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Yesterday, I mentioned in my post about Louise Brooks that film scholars consider Pandora’s Box to be (arguably) one of the three best of the silent era.  Each was revolutionary in its own way, and all have had incalculable influences on subsequent filmmakers.  This one is the second of the trio.

Joan of Arc movies largely have been unsuccessful with both critics and audiences.  One reason for this is that the story itself is so vast and complicated, that it’s impossible to boil it down to a two-hour format without losing its essence.  Another problem is that directors almost always have chosen beautiful, or at least attractive, women to play the role.  (Having undertaken a lot of research in preparation for my novel about Joan, An Army of Angels, I’m about 99.9% sure that she didn’t look anything like Ingrid Bergman.)

However, one film based on the French heroine’s life stands apart from the others, and it was made 86 years ago.

Shot in France at the end of the silent era and directed by a Danish veteran of the Swedish film industry, Carl Theodor Dreyer, the film was a critical success and immediately hailed as a masterpiece.  Audiences, however, rejected it, having expected to see a cast-of-thousands, heroic epic.  What they got was something no one anticipated.

Dreyer eschewed action-filled battle scenes and instead chose to limit Joan’s story to the trial that condemned her.  As film critic Roger Ebert observed in his Great Movies essay, this is a film about faces.  Rather than wide shots we see closeups; the perplexed outrage of the judges, and Joan’s long-suffering, sometimes stoic peasant’s face.  The drama focuses on the contest of wills between the politically and theologically powerful on the one hand, and the simple, unyielding stance of one guided by her own convictions.  It is a breathtaking depiction of an actual event.  (The trial transcripts formed the basis of the screenplay.)

The director chose as his lead a stage actress from the Comédie Française, Renee Maria Falconetti (usually referred to simply as Falconetti).  Initially unsure that she was right for the part, Dreyer soon realized that she possessed the plain but charismatic face he was looking for as well as an inner light, and she more than rose to the occasion.  Her Joan is equal parts defiant and mindful of her judges’ authority, utterly convinced that she is led by God, and determined to do what she must.  It is one of the most compelling, and natural, performances in screen history–and since Falconetti never made another movie after The Passion, it is the only cinematic role for which she is associated.

The movie is available on DVD; I suggest you get the Criterion Collection version with Richard Einhorn’s wonderful Voices of Light musical soundtrack.  Here’s A.O. Scott’s brief take on the film, courtesy of YouTube.  It features a snippet from the VoL score.

2 Responses to SILENT MOVIES: The Passion of Joan of Arc

  1. very good site, thanks

  2. Christian says:

    Hey, funny you bring Joan up. I was raving at dinner tonight to my household about your book because one of my daughters was asking about a detail on a Joan prayercard. Anyway they all got fired up, I brought your book into the dining room from the study, said a bit more. One daughter took it and is already reading it. I guess I read it, what, 15 years ago, and still think of Joan in terms of your book.

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