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.

Joan of Arc at 600

Joan of Arc, Philadelphia, PA – after the original at the Place des Pyramides, Paris

Today, January 6, is the officially recognized birthday of Jehanne Darc (more commonly known as Joan of Arc), the 15th century peasant girl who led the armies of Charles VII of France to a string of victories against the English and subsequently was burned at the stake after being convicted of heresy.

Born on this date in 1412 (or thereabouts), she came out of nowhere to rouse a listless Dauphin and his dejected knights to a renewed confidence in France’s national destiny, a faith that they had relinquished many years earlier after a series of defeats at the hands of the English.  Martyrdom at the age of nineteen guaranteed her an historical immortality. 

Over the past six centuries countless books, poems, operas and movies have been dedicated to telling Joan of Arc’s story, including my own An Army of Angels in 1997.  Artists, it seems, cannot get enough of her.  No doubt she would have found that unbelievable.  Even more astonishing, the notion that people in 2012, living in countries that didn’t exist when she was alive, would still remember her.  But we do.

Happy Birthday, Jehanne La Pucelle.

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