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The Passion of Joan of Arc [La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc] (1928)

To be honest, I'm not generally a fan of silent movies.  The comedy depends too much on slapstick.  The drama is over emoted.  Prints tend to be in fairly shoddy shape--often way too dark.  And everything seems to run at warp speed, as if the projectionist couldn't slow it down.  There are of course a few I've enjoyed, but even with them, much of the enjoyment lies in the very fact that they are so old-fashioned, that they carry with them that whiff of nostalgia, a quaint creakiness.  Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, on the other hand, is not only a great silent film, maybe even the greatest, it is also a seemingly timeless film, one where the fact that it's silent doesn't matter a bit, might almost be nothing more than the director's preference.  If it were being released today, for the first time, it would still look fresh, original, innovative, and technically accomplished.

Now part of this may just be a fluke.  For years it was thought that the only prints of the film had been destroyed.  Fire consumed the original and a newer version that Dreyer painstakingly reconstructed.   After the second fire, he gave up and moved on to his next movie, Vampyr.  Thereafter The Passion was apparently shown in pretty dubious versions, until in 1981 a pristine copy of the original was found in a closet of a sanitarium in Oslo, Norway.  Whether it's a function of this unique preservation technique or wholly owing to Dreyer's vision, the film is much brighter and crisper than just about any other silent you'll ever see.  Another great benefit that this recently restored version enjoys is the exceptional accompanying music, Voices of Light, composed by Richard Einhorn specifically for this purpose, though it is a fine oratorio in its own right.

Dreyer used the actual transcripts of Joan's trial for the dialogue, but condensed the action down to one harrowing day.  He used various camera angles, so for instance, when the inquisitors are questioning Joan we look up at them; when she answers we look down.  Much is done in extreme close-up and the camera lingers over every wrinkle, mole, and fleck of spittle on these men.  Nor does it spare Joan--the nineteen year old girl, whose very style of dress (in men's clothing), was a threat to established authority.  She's played with bug-eyed intensity by Maria Falconetti who ends up looking like she's truly been tortured--ashen, gaunt, and hollow-eyed.  Apparently by the end of the scene where they cut Joan's hair, Ms Falconetti and some of the crew were so emotionally distraught that they had to stop shooting while folks recovered.

And, of course, in Joan's story, Carl Dreyer started out with remarkable material.  From trial, to prison cell, to torture chamber, to confession to sudden retraction and execution, he follows every step of the way.  Because the camera is always drawn in so tight and because he collapsed the time frame, we are allowed no room to breathe, no respite from the march of fate.  By the final horrific shots of the bonfire (May 30, 1431) consuming what is by then Joan's corpse, the viewer feels like they've come as close as they would ever want to experiencing martyrdom.  That's no small achievement on Dreyer's part and makes this one of the most memorable films of all time.  It is astonishing.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

    -FILMOGRAPHY :  Carl Theodor Dreyer
    -The Films of  Carl Theodor Dreyer
    -Great Directors--a critical database : Carl Theodor Dreyer (Acquarello)
    -INFO : La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) (
    -ESSAY : The saint goes marching in : As The Messenger storms theaters, a legion of Joan of Arc movies invades video stores (Steven A. Erickson, November 11-18, 1999, TimeOutNY)
    -DISCUSSION : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Arts Reformation)
    -ARCHIVES : "carl dreyer" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (US Catholic Bishops)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (GARY MORRIS, Bright Lights Film Journal)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Michael Koller, Senses of Cinema)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Basement films)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (CGK, Bungalow)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (David Abrams, Culture Dose)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Andrew Chan, Film Written)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Acquarello, Strictly Film School)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Keith Phipps, Onion AV Club)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Brian Koller, Films Graded)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Play's Film Reviews)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (David Barry, Xiibaro)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Doug Pratt, DVD Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Michael Jacobson, DVD Review Central)
    -REVIEW : of The Passion of Joan of Arc (DVDangle)
    -REVIEW : of  Passion of Joan of Arc (Mary Weems, Movie Magazine International)
    -REVIEW ESSAY : Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet (The Word), and Gertrud : Three masterworks by one of cinema's supreme artists, finally in decent transfers (GARY MORRIS, Bright Lights Film Journal)
    -FILMS OF THE CENTURY : Carl Dreyer: Day of Wrath (Derek Malcolm, The Guardian)
    -FILM LIST : Sight & Sound Critics Survey : (#7) The Passion of Joan of Arc

    -Richard Einhorn
    -BIO : Richard Einhorn (Sony Music)
    -ESSAY : An Arc du Triomphe : Richard Einhorn moves the Maid of Orleans from the burning stake and the screening room to Cabrillo Music Festival's centerstage (Traci Hukill, Metro Active)
    -ARCHIVES : "richard Einhorn" (Find Articles)

    -Anonymous 4

    -ESSAY : DESPERATELY SEEKING JOAN - Woman behind the hype (Mary Gordon, March 10, 2000, Commonweal)
    -PROFILE : Joan of Arc : Her devout heroism saved a country (Ted Olson, Christian Reader, May/June 2000)
    -Saint Joan of Arc Center  (Virginia Frohlick - Founder, Albuquerque, N.M.)
    -ARCHIVES : "joan of arc" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW ESSAY :The Messenger: A Story of Joan of Arc : Luc Besson's new film isn't nearly as good as the true story, nor is his Joan truly a messenger. (Peter T. Chattaway, November 15, 1999, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY : Why I Hate "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" (Ronald F. Maxwell, November 15, 1999, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW : of Joan of Arc by Mary Gordon (Sally Cuneen, Christian Century)