The Passion of Joan of Arc – Review

11 Sep

So, for this review, we are going waywaywayway back to 1928. At this point, film making is still relatively new. Edison’s actuality films have been around for a while, and we are well into the golden age of silent cinema. Film makers like F.W. Murnau have been taking the medium and turning it into a very expressive work of art that can be used for more than just simple entertainment purposes. One of the most important film makers, whose goal seemed to be achieving just this, was Carl Theodor Dreyer. I have already reviewed on of Dreyer’s movies, Vampyr, and can easily call it my personal favorite. In many people’s eyes, however, The Passion of Joan of Arc is considered his masterpiece.

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Joan of Arc (Maria Falconetti) stands trial for declaring that she has been sent by God to remove the English from France. The judges try to intimidate her with condemning words, false letters from King Charles VII, and eventually the threat of torture. Her fear of burning at the stake forces her to sign the confession, stating that she was lying the entire time. Later, in her prison, she is rethinking everything that she has done and recants her confession. This leads to an intense scene of her execution by fire and the riot amongst the public that this causes.

When executed properly, silent films can be even more powerful than modern day dramas that implement a lot of dialogue to convey the emotional intensity of a scene. Dreyer didn’t have this luxury and was forced to use other means to show just how straining physically, mentally, and spiritually this whole trial was for Joan. As a starting point, Dreyer had actual transcripts of the trial that had been meticulously recorded. This provided a lot of information that makes the film as good as it is. One outstanding instance of historical accuracy that can now be used as one of the greatest lines of dialogue in the film goes as follows: “Are you in a state of grace,” asks one of Joan’s judges. She replies with, “If I am, may God keep me there; if I am not, may He grant it to me.”

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Dreyer is really good with set design and moving the camera around in these sets. At the time, camera movement was not as fancy as it is today, but somehow Dreyer managed to completely step out of the box and create highly artistic and fluid motion. The sets in The Passion of Joan of Arc are almost completely bare and white. There are occasional shadows that evoke religious imagery, which is nice, but the set design is an excellent example of minimalism. The exterior scenes were also shot in a man made town square that had many of different mechanisms that had to be adjusted so that Dreyer could move the camera about and got the shots that he wanted. One exterior shot that really caught my attention was a extremely low angle shot looking straight up with people sprinting by the camera. It seemed like an incredibly daring shot, but looks fantastic nonetheless. Another great example of camera work is when the camera moves close to Joan and her judges in moments of intensity. That brings us to the close ups.

It is said that the producers of this movie were none to happy with Dreyer and the finished product. They spent a lot of money in making sure that the sets were large and starkly beautiful. Well, viewers don’t get too much time to admire the sets with all of the close ups that Dreyer uses. The amount of close ups was pretty much unheard of at this point. Not only that, but none of the actors were wearing make up.  That leaves a lot of close ups on actors that are completely natural, and lets face it, some of her judges are pretty freaky looking without make up. Dreyer firmly believed that the eyes were the window to the soul, which makes his decision to cast Maria Falconetti as Joan even more perfect. The close ups on Falconetti are mesmerizing, with her eyes seeming to look through the screen and straight into the viewer’s heart. This is one of the best performances ever put to film, and words really can’t do it justice.

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The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential piece of film history that acts as a major foundation for making film into a legitimate means of artistic expression. For film standards in 1928, this is movie is extremely inventive and progressive. Moving away from what was considered to be a traditional film of the time, Dreyer creates a meticulous spiritual journey that we must travel with Joan. It’s beautiful, haunting, and will completely overwhelm you by the time that the final image burns into your mind.

2 Responses to “The Passion of Joan of Arc – Review”

  1. Victor De Leon September 11, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    Wonderful review. I cannot wait to re-visit this film. I haven’t seen it since the early 90’s I believe and it was just on TCM recently. Great in depth essay. I learned a few things about this beautiful film. Thanks!

  2. vinnieh April 13, 2014 at 6:45 pm #

    Wonderful post, I really need to see this one now.

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