Thursday, December 2, 2010

Capsule Review: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

To watch The Passion of Joan of Arc is to re-think much of what you know regarding the language of cinema. Carl Theodor Dreyer based his film on the actual transcripts of the trial of Jeanne d'Arc, but this is no traditional historical drama relying on scenery and action, instead resting almost solely on the face of Maria Falconetti (as Jeanne) who gives such an extraordinary performance - and almost entirely in close-up - that her face can't help but be the lingering image you retain from the film. You can truly believe that this is a woman who has touched God, her eyes wide in contemplation or fear, or almost closed in near-defeat. Dreyer spent his budget on detailed sets, but his choice to film almost entirely in medium and close-up shots, with the representatives of the Church shot from below so they literally loom over the screen, shows how much power lays in small movements and facial expression. There are unsettling images here, and Dreyer understands how to provoke visceral responses - the editing in the scene where Jeanne faints in the torture chamber proves to be equally disorienting to the viewer - and the director makes clear parallels with the death of Jesus in Jeanne's interrogation and mistreatment. There is no definitive score to this silent film - which until the mid-80s was thought to be lost - but Richard Einhorn's Voices Of Light (inspired by the film) is available on the Criterion edition of the film, and makes for magnificent accompaniment,

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