Sometimes it only takes a few frames to realise that you’re in for a treat. This was the case for me with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. It is however a film that I’d put off watching for a long time. Despite my interest in silent cinema and all the great things I’d read and heard, there was something about what little I knew of the film that put me off. Perhaps it was the subject matter (more on that later) or the idea that it would be a depressing and/or dull watch but either way it took a good five years from my first whiff of the film to actually sitting down to watch it. What a silly boy I was for those five years. Like many other renowned films that I’d put off viewing it is of course a superb movie that features some of the best acting, editing and camera placement I’ve ever seen.
The film tells of the imprisonment, trial and (spoiler) execution of Joan of Arc (Noah’s wife) who claimed divine guidance and lead France to several important military victories during the Hundred Year’s War before being captured by the English and tried for heresy, all by the age of nineteen. The film draws on the five hundred year old transcripts of the trial and indeed original documents form the basis of the script.
As with any ‘silent’ film, the score is of the utmost importance. The blu-ray copy I bought was accompanied by a couple of different scores and without any reason I chose the avant-garde score of Loren Connors, a decision I came to be thrilled with. Connors’ haunting, echoing and stripped back accompaniment is perfectly pitched to run alongside the visuals and plot. In the same way as The Cinematic Orchestra’s score for Man With a Movie Camera, Connor’s music helped to keep the film fresh while providing a sound that would have been impossible to imagine upon the movie’s original release. For comparison I also re-watched sections of the film with Mie Yanashita’s modern piano interpretation and it had little of the same darkening dread as Connors’ work, something which I think helps prove the theory that the score can make or break a silent picture, no matter how good the rest of it is.
Back to the original film though and it begins with a beautiful tracking shot along a grand hall, filled with stern priests and judges, before stopping at the feet of Joan, bound in chains, awaiting her fate. This is just the first of probably hundreds of shots that left my mouth agape. Because my main interest in silent cinema lies with the era’s comedies, I’m often taken aback by the technical dexterity of the era’s dramatic work. Without wanting to offend Chaplin and Keaton fans (of which I am amongst the greatest) their films just can’t compare with the magnificent art direction and camera movement of the Dreyers, the Vertovs or the Murnaus. I was surprised and impressed with the quick cutting found throughout the film, something which helped to power through the duller moments in the plot. The editing as a whole was sublime and coupled with the unusual camera placement, turned the film into the magnum opus that it is.
Dreyer’s camera comes at its characters from almost every conceivable angle, looking up their nose, across their face and into the whites of their eyes. It never feels forced or unnecessary though and perfectly fits the tension and drama of the piece. The use of high contrast lighting helps to pick out the detail and emotion in the actor’s faces and this coupled with the choice to shoot the inquisitors mainly from below helps to give them a ghastly and terrifying presence.
The film’s acting is without exception faultless but in my opinion contains one of the greatest performances I’ve ever witnessed. Numerous articles and reviews have written about Maria Falconetti’s performance as Joan so I won’t spend much time adding my flat diet coke to a sea of single malt but will say that it matches anything I’ve ever seen and would urge anyone to watch the movie purely on the merits of her acting. Words cannot do justice to the way in which she carries the film. She conveys the calm, dignified dread of the character impeccably and when she breaks down, she really breaks down. Her huge, sad eyes appear to fill the screen and she appears to live the role. It’s… it’s just brilliant.
Despite all the superlatives I’ve been haphazardly throwing at this movie, I did have issues with it. Personally the plot did not fully engage me. I was aware of the basics of the story and had no desire to watch a dramatisation of it. It’s obviously important and carries messages which would mean a lot to many a religious person not to mention the female sex. I am neither of those things though and feel as though the film didn’t truly explore the feminist angle and over explored the religious angle. Scenes in which Joan and her captures debate and discuss religion had no interest to me and in some scenes actively turned me against the movie. They might have well been arguing over whether their imaginary friend had blue or purple hair. Much attention is given to Joan’s claim to be sent by God. The English didn’t believe this and with good reason. Most people who claim to be sent by God would end up locked up. My atheistic opinion had an obvious bearing on my interest but even putting this aside, there were long passages which felt like an uninspiring courtroom drama without any evidence.
Despite my reservations over the plot and subject matter, there is no denying that The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the gems of the late silent period and fully deserves its status as one of the all time greats. It looks fantastic, plays beautifully and features one of the finest acting performances ever committed to film.