Fragmentary impressions of a silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), directed by Carl Th. Dreyer, and starring Reneé Falconetti as Joan:
- The film is unique in my experience in the way that it refracts the point of view we experience through the constantly shifting angles deployed on the screen for brief moments before another equally striking image replaces it.
- The kaleidoscopic effect, rather than abstracting and distancing me, drew me into the heart of the emotion, and the spiritual nature of the simple narrative.
- Director Carl Th. Dreyer employs a rapid pace of editing that at times anticipates the style of a latter day music video.
- The pace is combined with the bewildering variety of camera angles, in almost exclusively medium to extreme close-up shots. The few instances of zooms or tracking shots are used with memorable specificity to emphasize the mood of the judges.
- Richard Einhorn’s oratorio “Voices of Light” serves as one of the finest silent film scores I have ever experienced.
- For a fully realized essay about this film, I recommend you to this post by Matthew Dessem on his Criterion Contraption blog.
- I couldn’t help but think that many contemporary viewers surely will view this story of a young woman interrogated, tortured, and condemned by a gang of old men as a proto-feminist parable.
- To me, however, the story of faith does not condemn the institutional church as a whole, for all time. We are expected to bring an extra-textual context to our viewing. (That is, since Joan was canonized as a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.)
- Joan is interrogated with ruthless cruelty by a panel of churchmen, but her answers are often given with the wide-eyed and tearful nod or mouthed “oui.” The details of her replies are sometimes left to our conjecture—the simplicity of her pure faith is clear however.
- Despite the basic dearth of wider or establishing shots, the film really has to be seen in motion to appreciate the effect of the compositions. So much depends on the montage, and the subtle arrangements of faces and furniture from shot to shot.
- The film being shot in chronological sequence apparently gave Falconetti, in her only screen role, a chance to experience the trial and suffering of Joan in a very striking fashion, which is completely visible on the screen in her face.
- The final scenes of Joan’s martyrdom are as harrowing as anything I have witnessed in film. They are cut against visions of the English soldiers brutalizing and killing the French peasants. Joan’s victory, and that of the peasants, is not ultimately through arms, but through embracing the way of the Cross.
“I wanted to interpret a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life.”