In which we close in on the final days of a Patron Saint.
Where discovering Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films for the first time has been a true joy, I was apprehensive about taking on The Passion of Joan of Arc. Like many of the movies I’m watching this year, it’s another well-regarded classic of silent cinema but it stands apart as a heavy and earnest piece of work. Going into it, I knew it would not be an easy watch.
Released in 1928, the film was an unusual and somewhat controversial French and Danish effort, with Scandinavian director Carl Theodor Dreyer in the director’s chair. Joan of Arc had seen a resurgence in interest after the first world war, with her being sainted in 1920. Drastically condensing history, the film combines 18 months of her interrogation into a single act followed by her execution.
Two elements raise the film into the pantheon of 1920s masterpieces, the tight direct of Dreyer and mesmerisingly iconic lead performance of Renee Falconetti. Almost every shot of a character is a close up on their face, with actors displayed naturally without any makeup to emphasises the harsh reality of the situation. The viewer becomes the listener as we look up to the judges and always down at Joan. Joan herself constantly gazes over our eyeline and heads to god, creating an unnerving feeling we aren’t who she’s talking to. The set up is uncomfortably close as we’re forced to face up to the corruption of the church and pain of the heroine.
This approach couldn’t have worked without the incredible skill of Falconetti in projecting her internal struggle with few words and little movement. It’s the almost blank nature of her face that somehow says everything that’s going on in Joan’s mind as she questions herself, her beliefs and the words of those around her.
Despite these fantastic achievements, there is an oddness and perhaps dreariness to The Passion of Joan of Arc that makes it hard to enjoy, whilst easy to admire. The bare sets and close ups work well to create mood and tension but are repetitive and draining to watch. Of course, that’s how Joan feels and we are successfully forced into her shoes through these choices – I for one have no desire to return to them.
With the film following the interrogation and execution of Joan (not a spoiler, she died in 1431), there’s hardly anything but exposition and dialogue until the final scene where a riot begins. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “perhaps the secret of Dreyer’s success is that he asked himself, “What is this story really about?” And after he answered that question, he made a movie about absolutely nothing else.”
The Passion of Joan of Arc is faithful and brutalist cinema but takes its toll on the viewer. There’s no denying the power and importance of this movie, yet it’s hard to recommend to all but film enthusiasts and historians. For those that do watch, prepare for an experience truly like no other.
Let me know what you think by joining the conversation on Twitter.