Perhaps no face has been scorched into cinema quite like Renée Falconetti’s, whose portrayal of Joan of Arc is considered to be the face of tension-filled injustice and martyrdom put to film. 1928’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s spiritual nightmare, a classic work of silent film that singed Joan of Arc’s tragedy to screen and does so masterfully in starkly haunting and poetic black and white. Declared a heretic by her end, the film follows the trial of Joan of Arc, a recently captured teenager who felt compelled, through what she interpreted as divine calling, to lead the French into battle with England during the Hundred Year War.
Joan (Falconetti) in film form is mostly portrayed as the purest of beings, primarily a translucent, innocent face bursting with tears, emotion, recoil, and confusion by her investigation and damnation by man. Using close-ups of her expressive face not only guides our emotions but also our understanding of Joan beyond historical recollection along with her mental wellbeing throughout. Dreyer stated that he intended the film to focus primarily on the confrontational faces of the cast as to ascribe a specific spirit of the time and to mitigate the viewer’s contextual and emotional understanding of the story. While the film uses sets, beautifully spacious ones at that, but it relies heavily on character’s faces to relay the intense feelings and sensations. While not modern, it is a significantly performance-heavy film that transcends time and place.
Joan has no hidden motivations; she is displayed as simply a peasant French girl who honestly believed she was called upon by God to vanquish England from France. She is a true believer. Dreyer’s description of Joan is that of “the virgin of Orleans”, and no makeup was used to strive for that untouched virtue and humanity. Joan is punished for not only her steadfast beliefs but for her brave venture into the Hundred Years War and most prominently, embarrassing the British. Joan was also targeted for wearing men’s clothing (as it is forbidden in the Old Testament), and signed an agreement stating she did not actually receive divine guidance and that she would stop (Joan herself could not read or write) wearing men’s clothing. Joan later that day was denied women’s clothing, thus having her break the agreement she had previously made and was found guilty. The first, small amount relief is quickly withdrawn as they condemn the already overwhelmed Joan. She is successfully tried for heresy and witchcraft, and undeservedly found guilty and burned at the stake. The unembellished, brutal ending of Joan crying out to Jesus, as she is burned alive is the perfect ending sentiment to this madness of persecution.
Researchers now surmise that Joan might have suffered from disorders ranging from epilepsy to schizophrenia, making the story somewhat more tragic that Joan probably just entirely misunderstood and suffered from delusions through no fault of her own. Joan would often state that she loved the sound of bells, as that was when she would hear the voices of God or spirits. One of the film’s composers, Richard Einhorn, even recorded the bells from Joan’s own church in France and used them variously during specific scenes to recall her spirituality and calls from God.
It took the Catholic Church almost 500 years to officially recognize Joan as a saint, even though it thoroughly and systematically refuted her trial 25 years following her death. Her unbroken faith is in part admirable and disturbing as it led to her rise and subsequent downfall, but her spirit is communicable and touching despite what the troubling realities behind it. Arguably the film advanced human compassion and understanding, as this was the first glimpse for many into a real hypocrisy that was impossible to ignore or disregard. It is a captivating story that has since become a uniquely feminist one. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” acts like a documentation of that incident (it was taken mostly directly from the court documents that are still present) and a fitting tribute to the final moments of a remarkable life.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” gets a Blu-Ray upgrade from the Criterion Collection. The original 2-disc set from 1999 has been downsized to a single Blu-Ray, along with the special features that were present on that release. The upgrade to a 2K digital restoration has been a long time coming and with the added features of this remarkable work, seemingly worth the wait. The film has two versions, one at 24 frames per second, and another at 20 frames per second with the original Danish intertitles. The 24 frame version is a bit fast but otherworldly, but I would argue the preferred method. There is a version history included to guide you through the differences and how the film was originally viewed. There are three scores for the film included since the film is silent, I would recommend giving one a try at the very least. The classic Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light” version, one by Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and Portishead’s Adrian Utley, and one composed by pianist Mie Yanashita. I was not too accustomed to any particular selection and found all three to be worthy of inclusion and interesting enough in their efforts. Casper Typjerg, a Danish film scholar provides an excellent audio commentary on the film’s history along with Joan’s. New supplemental material includes a new interview with Einhorn, a conversation between Gregory and Utley, updated subtitle translations, and a video essay by Typjerg exploring the film’s debate over the frame rate. In the booklet is an essay by film critic Mark Le Fanu, Dreyer’s own statement from 1929, along with the full libretto for “Voices of Light” is included. Also included is the trailer, the production design archive, an interview with actor Falconetti’s daughter and biographer from 1995. A film of this stature and history gets a well-deserved proclamation.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Carl Theodor Dreyer
Spine # 62
Available of Blu-Ray, DVD, and Filmstruck