from some of the comedy classics of the silent era, it’s arguable that the one
picture of the period you should make a point to see is Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film that
has appeared on Sight and Sound’s top
ten films poll five times and consistently cited as one of the most essential
motion pictures in history.
high praise, and it’s deserved.
those of you who won’t watch silent movies because you think they’re boring or
slow or whatever—forget it.The
Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most riveting pictures you’ll ever
see.Its brevity (only 81 minutes at 24
frames per second) is a strength, but its power lies in the faces of its
actors.Dreyer has focused the camera
(with superb cinematography by future Hollywood director Rudolph Maté)
on facial close-ups—the eyes, the mouths, the wrinkles in the skin… and it all
masterfully reveals the inner turmoil of the characters.
that of Joan.The performance by stage
actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti in the title role is
nothing short of miraculous.At the time
she was an acclaimed performer in the theatre to such an extent that her name
in the credits is simply listed as “Falconetti.”What eyes, what expressions, what pain… what passion!As she is overcome by the rapture that envelops her, Joan is transformed
to a thing of otherworldly beauty.
familiar with Joan’s story knows what the film is about.Young Joan had led French armies against the
English during the Hundred Years’ War, was captured, and, because she claimed
to be able to speak with God, was put on trial for heresy by French clergy loyal to the English.The film depicts her trial and ultimate
adapted the actual handwritten court transcripts in writing the screenplay;
thus, the intertitles are real testimony delivered in the proceedings.The piece begins dramatically, with crowds
outside the court gathering to hear news of the trial.Sideshow performers and midway vendors turn
the thing into a circus.Inside, Joan is
led to confront a group of all-male judges who question her about her choice of
clothing (she dresses as a “boy”), her sexual orientation, her alleged
communication with the Lord, and if she’s really consorting with the
Devil.Joan has an intelligent,
reasonable answer for every question, but the judges have one goal in
mind.They move on to a torture interrogation
and finally the sad conclusion that would be the basis for Joan’s Sainthood.