It’s a centuries-old fact that we as humans love participating in, or provoking a reaction from, experiences that we’ve been told are best unrealized. Whether it’s touching wet paint, eating carbs just before tucking in for the night, or topping off the tank at the gas station, we just can’t help giving in to those ominous warnings bespeaking regret. So it is with cinema, especially the horror films of our (relative) youth. But have you ever come across a silent film with similar connotations? Granted, different times come with different views, but when watching a film like Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, it’s a little crazy to imagine that a film not directed by D.W. Griffith could instill a sense of impassioned dissatisfaction on the part of censors.
The film centers around the final moments of French villager-turned-knight Jeanne d’Arc, as a gathering of priests attempt to beguile her through a series of interrogations in an effort to discredit her claim that God has sent her with a mission, one that will result in the driving out of the English occupying France. The story, as we know, ends in her execution, but it is rather her journey to that point—the questions, the torture, the elucidations—which enraptures us for the film’s brief 82-minute runtime.
Going into Passion, one not privy to the particular charms of a silent film may find themselves a little discombobulated at first, considering that this is also a foreign film, with subtitles for the intertitles. Aside from this (but most certainly not in spite of), the film is as enjoyable as it is refreshing for one of its caliber. The film, which condenses Joan's original 29 interrogations over an 18-month period into a single day’s trial, grips the audience with an ethereal presence unmatched by the likes of Dreyer’s contemporaries at the time. Passion is perhaps most markedly known for its close-ups, especially of lead actress Maria Falconetti, taking on an approach that you’ll find rare in contemporary Hollywood films. Cinema of that period regarded the close-up shot (CU) in silent films to be the perennial motif in which a director could most successfully illicit meaning and emotion from his/her actor’s faces (think "window to the soul"). Although today this would hardly be feasible, during the silent era, when really all a director could do was draw our attention to facial features and sets, Passion exquisitely exemplifies the power rendered from such focus.
Aside from the haunting tactility of the story and Dreyer’s attention to detail with regards to sets and special effects, the fact that Passion went through a somewhat tumultuous journey, the ending of which almost lent itself to Holy Grail-like mythos, gives it an unforgettable presence and easily disturbed quality. Sometime after its completion in '28, the master print of the film was lost in a fire. Dreyer, with little choice, began cutting together a second version of the film from the cuts he’d discarded earlier. As the years wore on, prints of the second master cut began either going missing or were similarly lost to fire. Luckily, in ’81, a complete cut of the original master work was found—in the janitor’s closet of a Norwegian mental institution. Although there are perfectly reasonable explanations for this, such a clandestine fate has never been more appropriate for a film.
With regards to special features, on the Criterion release viewers can enjoy a plethora of essays, video essays, and background knowledge on the construction of the film; all very interesting, to be sure, but none so devastating as that of Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light score accompaniment that can be listened to while you watch the film. While most silent films do indeed come with a soundtrack, Passion was actually intended to be watched completely silent. However, Einhorn was so inspired by the film that he opted to compose a piece that aptly conveyed the way he felt about the film, and the two have thus been regularly shown together. You have to see it to believe how utterly amazing it is.
This film is not rated, but does contain brief (and appropriate) nudity, and scenes of Joan being bled. See a complete list of questionable material HERE.
The Passion of Joan of Arc can be found at the following retail stores and online markets:
Amazon -- DVD
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