Less is more. Especially when it comes to the 1928 film The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc). It is a film with no sound, no music, no extravagant sets, no make-up and no expensive costumes, but if any one of these aspects were added to the film it would take away from the minimalist masterpiece that Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer has created.
The film opens when Joan (Maria Falconetti) is a prisoner of the English, and she is going to trial for her belief that she has been sent by God to drive the English out of France. It begins with her trial and imprisonment, and Joan is seen being bullied into admitting that she is in fact a liar. Some of the priests support her claim and believe she is a saint, but they are grossly outnumbered. When the priests are unable to convince her to say she is lying, they attempt to trick her into believing her King wants her to say she made everything up. Finally in desperation, they try to scare her with different types of physical and psychological torture.
For a movie based on the life of someone who had already been dead for 500 years, the production of The Passion Of Joan Of Arc was extremely intense. The Roman Catholic Church had canonized her in 1920, and before the film was released it suffered greatly at the hands of French government censors, as well as the Archbishop of Paris who felt the film portrayed characters unfairly. Many thought that a non-French director could not properly portray this story, and like so many visionary directors that would come later, his original version was taken out of his control and heavily edited as a result. In 1928, a lab fire destroyed the negative to Dryer’s original cut, and then in 1929, another fire destroyed the later cut made with the Archbishop’s approval. In 1933, a version of the film was pieced together with several scenes missing entirely, and significant changes made throughout. It ran at 61 minutes in length and Dreyer disliked it immensely, saying that its release was in “bad taste”. Carl Dreyer died in 1968, believing that his original film had been lost forever.
In 1981, an employee of a mental institution in Norway found some old film canisters in a janitor’s closet marked: The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. They were sent to the Norwegian Film Institute, where they sat for three more years before being examined. Much to the surprise and delight of the world, the canisters contained a copy of Dryer’s original cut, and his cinematic masterpiece was restored for the world.
Today, there is no arguing the greatness of this film. Dreyer used everything at his disposal to make The Passion Of Joan Of Arc feel authentic and natural, and he succeeded admirably. He used no make-up on the actors, and filmed most of the movie in close-up’s, exposing all of the actors’ facial features and imperfections. He also filmed in sequence, in order to maintain the proper emotions of the characters as the story unfolded.
Dreyer was considered a hard director to work with, especially on actress Maria Falconetti. She was a stage actress who had previously been in only one film. After her experiences making The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, she would remain on the stage for the rest of her career. Her performance has gone down in history as one of the all time greatest, and for good reason. It is powerful, emotional and completely raw. She does more than act like Joan; she has truly become her. The pain and suffering she seems to be enduring is highly overwhelming, and her compelling portrayal is something that will stay embedded in any viewer’s mind.
Time has served The Passion Of Joan Of Arc extremely well. In 1952, it appeared on Sight & Sounds list of the Greatest Films Of World Cinema, and since then has appeared on several (if not all) of the other “best movie” lists. Many different musical scores have been written to accompany the film over the years, but in my opinion the best way to enjoy what has been created is to watch it completely silent, in order to become engrossed by what Maria Falconetti and Carl Dreyer have created together. Many filmmakers have tried to make movies about Joan Of Arc, but it is only this film that has truly been able to capture her story and bring it to life in such a realistic manner.Back to Home for More Reviews