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1928 French silent film, directed by Carl Dreyer. Black and white, starring Maria Falconetti as Joan. 77 minutes.

Often hailed as one of the monuments in silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc is easily one of the most astounding films ever made, silent or otherwise. Directed by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968), The Passion is an accurate retelling of the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, the French peasant who led the French troops in their defeat of the English that occupied her homeland, was subsequently captured, and was burned at the stake on charges of heresy in 1431.

The film is notable for both Falconetti's performance and for Dreyer's unorthodox direction. Falconetti was not an actress by trade, and she would never make another movie. Dreyer rejected a number of established actors in casting his film, wanting instead to instead capture the raw emotion of Joan rather than a rehearsed portrayal of it. In his attempts to capture that expression, he had Falconetti kneel, sometimes for hours, on the stone floor of the life-sized castle he had built expressly for the shooting of the film. No actor in the film wears any makeup at all - the grotesque moles and warts on the faces of the inquisitors before whom Joan is tried are authentic. In an interview given after the release of the movie, Dreyer explains: "When a child suddenly sees an onrushing train in front of him, the expression on his face is spontaneous. By this I don't mean the feeling in it (which in this case is sudden fear), but the fact that the face is completely uninhibited."

Of special interest to a film critic is that there are no establishing shots in any of the movie's 1,500-plus cuts. The effect on the viewer is drastic - despite the numerous scenes shot in Joan's cell, for example, it would be impossible to draw the layout of the room after watching the film. In one notable scene, the most hostile of the judges stands in Joan's doorway, his face slightly below the odd frame of the portal. As he walks in, the camera remains stationary - and he walks past the field of view. The expected pull-back shot never takes place, and the viewer is left staring into the hallway beyond, a disturbing effect.

Throughout the movie, Dreyer plays with the idea of space and angle. The set itself was constructed at great cost - a complete castle built solely for the shooting of one movie was an unheard of concept in1920s French cinema. Dreyer was unconcerned; no existing edifice had the unique look that he wanted, with doorways and windows askance, walls bare of decoration, and lighting that was appropriately harsh. The sharp angles are difficult to watch on screen, but the overall effect is that the scenery is decidedly secondary to the expressions on the actor's faces. Dreyer's camera placement - often at extreme heights, such as from above the head of the inquisitors when they are interviewing Joan, or from the floor when she is being spat upon - has an unmistakable impact on the quality of each shot. Clearly, the audience is meant to side with Joan, and Dreyer places the audience in her position without resorting to the cliched first person viewpoint.

Interestingly, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a remarkably accurate film. Although an expensive script was written, Dreyer rejected it, and turned to the actual transcripts of the trial, portraying them on screen. The film was shot completely linearly - that is, the first scene was the first one shot, and the last images the audience watches are the same ones the camera saw.

A shining example of what film art can be, as well as a superb retelling of a difficult and lonely piece of history. As the French director Jean Cocteau said, this film plays like "an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn't exist''. Two complete negatives of were destroyed by fire, and as a result, incomplete passed around for years and Dreyer died believing his film would never be shown in its intended format. An uncut and still sealed version of was discovered in a closet in an abandoned Norwegian mental institution in the early 1980s, however, and has been released on DVD, accompanied by an oratorio by Richard Einhorn entitled Voices of Light, inspired by the film.


Information used in the writeup was taken from the IMDb, Roger Ebert's essay on the film located at http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/greatmovies/passion_of_joan.html, and from my own multiple personal viewings.

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