“You claim that I am sent by the Devil. It’s not true. To make me suffer, the Devil has sent you… and you… and you… and you.”
Some films are bathed in magic. I first heard about this movie about a year ago when I heard its incredible story: that the only original print of The Passion of Joan of Arc was destroyed in a fire, until Dreyer’s actual original (before censorship) was recovered in a mental institution in Oslo. It’s an entrancing tale for an entrancing film: a spiritually charged tour de force from the legendary Carl T. Dreyer.
The movie depicts Joan of Arc’s final hours. She is interrogated by a slew of religious officials who implore her to denounce her self-proclaimed miracles. In one of the greatest performances in cinema’s history, however, she refuses. Renee Jeanne Falconneti weeps and argues her way from an uncomfortable interrogation to a fiery death in a jarring affirmation of faith.
I once argued that Sunrise is the finest silent film: one with enough artistry to rise above its silly contemporaries and to rival any film that has since followed. I would now throw The Passion of Joan of Arc into the discussion as well. It’s more experimental than Sunrise, and I think the payoff is greater as a result, even if it’s a hair less entertaining for me. That said, it’s a brisk film. You’ll probably spend more time pondering Dreyer’s formal choices than anything about Joan of Arc, and the movie is short enough to reward you for doing so. You could take a “film school” reading of the movie without sinking too much of your time away.
In any case, you’ll notice right away that 90% of the film is shot in close up. It makes for one of the most personal movies you’ll ever see, and it would seem like a poor decision if it weren’t for Falconneti. Her eyes are the key to the movie. Every teardrop is heartbreaking, and it’s like you can hear every shriek through the screen. The movie is acted over-dramatically, as silent films always are, but it has the humanity that these other spectacles laugh. Häxan is entertaining, but it’s not human. Joan of Arc feels human. I kept waiting to get tired of all the close ups, but I just found myself wanting more. Every second Falconneti fills the frame, it’s cinematic bliss, and Dreyer takes full advantage of this talent.
It’s not really my niche, but I still found myself glued to my humble TV screen during this movie, which begs to be seen on a bigger screen. It’s one of cinema’s greatest treasures in my opinion, and I’d really recommend the Criterion release for what it’s worth. (In case you’re curious where to start, I watched the movie at 24 fps with the Voices of Light score, and I found it very affecting. I’m curious to try a different score in the future, maybe at 20fps as well.)
Films Left to Watch: 839