Criterion // 1928 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // November 10th, 1999
Based on her true story.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is a long recognized masterpiece of the silent genre. Largely based on the transcripts from the trial of Joan of Arc in the Fifteenth Century, the film goes above and beyond that of any silent film I have ever seen. Its power to move is universal and it will affect you in myriad ways.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is unlike any telling of her story you are likely to see -- and for more than one reason. The first and foremost is that it tells only the story of her trial before the church and University of Paris powers, while skipping entirely the background of how she came to be put on trial for heresy. From that standpoint, the film assumes, to a certain degree, a minimum level of familiarity with the story on the part of the viewer. Not that the film is unwatchable if you are unfamiliar with the story -- quite the contrary. I only make the point to dispel any rumors that this is just another Joan of Arc movie, because its not. The second way in which this film is far different from any other is the way it was shot.
The story compresses the 20+ days of interrogation Joan faced into eighty-two minutes and follows the five act traditional layout of a classical tragedy. It is shot more like a play than a traditional film, with each reel corresponding with an act, and taking place in a single setting. The first act transpires in the courtroom where her inquisitors first question Joan. The act serves as a setup of sorts, dictating the tone of what is to come. What follows is the Church's every attempt at tricking Joan into recanting, and further pressuring her to make a full confession. She is tricked with a forged letter from her King. She is threatened with torture in the torture chamber. She is bled due to a "fever." Eventually, pressured by a crowd in a public square, she recants her story and is sentenced to a lifetime of prison. Shortly thereafter, she changes her mind and takes confession and communion and is burned at the stake for a heretic.
The creator of this masterpiece is the driving force behind the power of the film. Carl Theodore Dreyer is a Danish filmmaker who wrote and directed films from around 1920 up until 1964. His perfectionist style and strive for realism dogged him throughout his career, and caused his work to be rather intermittent. But it is exactly this style and his intense drive for realism that makes this film so powerful. I believe he has a kindred spirit of sorts in William Friedkin. Imagine the stories that have come out of the shooting of the Exorcist and you'll know what I mean. Friedkin kept the set extraordinarily cold to get the breath of the actors evaporating into the air. There are also stories of Ellen Burstyn being injured as she was violently tossed about the room, creating a serious reaction to her pain that was used in the film. Likewise, Dreyer forced his star Maria Falconetti to actually cut her hair during the shearing scene in order to film her reaction. A stand-in was also used during the bloodletting scene, because it was REAL!
Dreyer spent 9 million francs on the production, most of it on a highly elaborate set which is barely and rarely seen. He insisted on its construction nevertheless to create the sense of religiosity for his actors. He also insisted his actors shave the tops of their heads during the entire film shoot even though most of them wore skullcaps over the bald spot. He would work with Falconetti ceaselessly to get the right mood and reaction from her in almost every scene, which is by and large why the production ran for more than six months.
However, the most interesting part of the film itself is the way it was shot. Dreyer almost exclusively uses full frame close-ups to convey the power of the moment. He mates these close-ups with several different extreme angles and innovative shots to great effect. Imagine more than 80% of the movie being a face, or part of a face or a head and shoulders or a torso, and you are getting close to describing the film. In this way, he has captured the reactions of Falconetti's Joan in a most powerful way. She is so clearly one of the finest silent film actors I have ever seen, she seems to be in a league of her own. I am certain a large degree of my feeling for her ability is influenced in the way this film was shot. Her expressiveness reminds me, in a perverted way of the ability displayed by Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria, except that Cabiria's sense of joy and playfulness here is transformed to pain and a lack of understanding and a struggling for strength to do the right thing.
The film has largely been missing from the public stage until now. Butchered and censored on its original release, Dreyer's original cut of the film was seen publicly only a few times. The original elements were thought to be lost to fire long ago. As a result, Dreyer went back and re-made the film from alternate cuts that were still available. It was only when this original version was found in a Norwegian mental institution closet in 1981 that it was thought the world might finally see Dreyer's original intent. Now, Criterion has seized the opportunity and digitally remastered the Norwegian print for this outstanding DVD edition.
The video on this disc is wonderful, especially when compared to the actual print found in 1981. The remastering work that was done is splendid. There is naturally a bit of noise left on the film, but it looks far and away better than most silent films I have seen before. Only "stunning" can begin to describe the way this disc looks. Presented in its original black and white, full frame aspect ratio the film itself looks great.
There is no real audio to speak of with this disc, except in the department of extras. The disc includes Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light, a choral and orchestral work that he was inspired to write by viewing the film, as well as a libretto for the work and an essay and video essay on the musical work by Einhorn himself. It also includes an audio essay by Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg from the University of Copenhagen. Almost a commentary track or sorts I highly recommend this track along with the film at least once preferably the second time around. Also included on the disc are an extensive production design archive, a history of the films many versions with illustrative video clips, examples of the digital restoration, and an audio interview with Falconetti's daughter Helene.
There is nothing negative about this disc. Perhaps a nice comparison to some other Joan of Arc works could have been included, but all in all, this disc is as complete as any I have seen. Perhaps another commentary track would have been in order, but really, how can I complain.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is a triumph and a showcase of Carl Dreyer's talent and moviemaking ability. A precursor of many techniques used today by equally successful directors, he seems to be a man largely before his time. Thankfully, we are now blessed with this pristine example of his work, and no fire will ever be able to take that away. If you are a film fan, you must see this film. Buy it, rent it, borrow it -- I don't care. This disc is as good as any silent film I have ever seen. Period.
The film and disc are acquitted. The judge rules that the prosecutor be burned at the stake for even bringing such ridiculous charges.
Review content copyright © 1999 Sean McGinnis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Silent)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1928
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light
* Commentary Track by Casper Tybjerg
* Production Design Archive
* A History of the Film's versions, with clips
* Audio Interview Excerpts with Helene Falconetti
* Audio Essay by Richard Einhorn on Joan of Arc and Voices of Light
* Video Essay on the production of Voices of Light
* Voices of Light Libretto Booklet