The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is a film of dualities. The score meanders then quickens, the softness of Renée Falconetti’s (the titular character) features are paralleled against her facial contortions in moments of distress. The black and white photography highlights the depravity of Joan’s jurors, and the innocence of her plight.
It is in these dualities that the film grips us. We’re caught somewhere between shock and wonder. The power of cinema is rarely so vigorous, or so mesmeric, yet this ferocity is what catapults the picture far beyond that of a great film, but that of a necessity.
Directed by the celebrated Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer (Ordet) on the invitation of the French Société Générale des Films, the picture navigates the trial of Joan of Arc and her subsequent peril, which was painstakingly researched by Dreyer over an 18-month period using the transcripts of the court sessions. With a budget of 7 million francs – at the time an exceedingly large sum to finance a picture – Dreyer was awarded the freedom to construct a substantial set based upon Rouen Castle. Due to the asymmetric cuts and absence of fluidity between frames, however, much of this is rarely gazed upon by the viewer. Yet this is never problematic, as the pioneering cinematography by Rudolph Maté means there is little space for the eyes to wonder, and even less desire for them to do so. The characters facial expressions are shot in continued close-up’s, with no embellishment or makeup, creating a startling potency that has seldom been rivalled in cinema’s history.
The score ebbs and flows with dazzling proficiency. There are pools of intimate delicacy, followed by waves of almost despotic intensity. It is vital for any silent feature to maintain a captivating score, as it acts akin to a narrator in governing the audience’s mood and attention. Ole Schmidt’s composition does just this.
Falconetti is hypnotic, brandishing a maniacal gaze in the opening sequence that capitulates into unbridled sorrow
Falconetti is hypnotic, brandishing a maniacal gaze in the opening sequence that capitulates into unbridled sorrow before a chilling acknowledgement of her sealed fate. An actor has certain tools at their disposal when moulding a performance, but due to the use of close-ups and the silent nature of the picture, Falconetti has just her face. What she constructs with this, however, is one of the most startling images in world cinema. We’re looking deep into the soul of one of the most revered figures in history, who’s martyrdom was immediate, yet in its most simplistic form, all we see is a 19-year-old girl terrified of the consequences of her actions but resolute in the sincerity of them. Joan stares fear in the eyes and accepts it. That is a powerful image, and an even greater idea.
Film as a medium only occasionally reaches the heights it is capable of attaining. Weighed down by financial restraints or mass-market driven needs, it is not often the audience can leave a picture with a different outlook to that which they previously possessed. Yet this transcendent treatise on faith achieves this like few films ever have, and likely ever will.
Rating: 5/5 stars
Last modified: 16th June 2020