Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc”

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It’s Easy to Become Passionate About “The Passion of Joan of Arc”


Once in awhile, a film comes along which is so brilliant and insightful it needs no vocals — or even dialogue subtitling, on occasion — to get its message across. 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is just such an example. Directed in newly-developed panchromatic black-and-white film stock by Carl Theodore Dreyer and starring Maria Renee Falconetti as the doomed Joan of Arc, Passion is widely regarded by critics as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of its time, and still mesmerizes as an example of how a character’s facial expressions, and the way in which he or she reacts to in-the-moment events, can truly propel a film to rarefied heights. If there’s truly such a thing as a movie classic, Passion is it.


In this examination of the last hours of the iconic female warrior and soldier for God, we see Joan’s trial, imprisonment, torture and execution much as it would appear in a religious passion play about the remaining earthly hours left to Jesus Christ before his crucifixion by the Romans. In fact, the common theme of jealousy at the role of someone else who just may have been chosen by God to carry out his works here on earth runs through the interplay between Joan and Bishop Pierre Cauchon, her chief interrogator and a strong proponent of English rights in France in the mid-15th century. In fact, his behavior throughout the trial, which was engineered to ensure Joan of Arc’s death, was condemned by Church authorities in later centuries.


The film employs the skillful use of close-ups of the main characters’ faces, and Dreyer insisted that his actors and actresses wear no makeup, the better to show the range of emotions he forced each to go through. It also made great use of light and shadow to bring the audience to just a small, yet haunting, sense of the oppressive weight of authority which turned on Joan, who’d been a literal savior of the French effort to rid itself of English meddling into the country’s affairs. Until her appearance on the scene, the French armies had been generally unsuccessful at dealing the English a meaningful enough blow to make them rethink their continued insistence on a say in the future of the whole of France.


Maria Renee Falconetti delivers probably one of the greatest single performances captured on film to this day, according to many scholars and critics. Known more for her stage work, The Passion of Joan of Arc was only her second, and final, movie. What’s interesting is that Passion had been thought lost for all time in a fire, and it wasn’t until 1981 that a mint copy was miraculously discovered in a janitor’s closet in an insane asylum in Oslo, Norway. Today, it’s recommended fare for any serious student of the cinema and delivers a truly inspired and powerful performance on the life and death of Joan of Arc. If you get the chance, watch it, for it’s really one of the first cinematic movie classics in the history of film.

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