Considered by many to be the last great classic of the international silent screen, The Passion of Joan of Arc is an unforgettable work of art. Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer gives us a film with deliberate precision and masterful economy. I’ve seen films that critics praise as being transcendental as a result of their austerity, but no other film I’ve seen is as deserving of such a claim.
- Director: Carl Theodore Dreyer
- Writer: Joseph Delteil, Carl Theodore Dreyer
- Cast: Renee Jeanne Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Andre Berley, Maurice Schutz
Dealing with one of the most recognized historical figures in Western Civilization, The Passion of Joan of Arc focuses on a trial that in reality spanned several months. The film condenses historical documents of the trial and makes critical questions and answers fit into a story spanning a 24 hour period. Joan had fought and won several conflicts during the Hundred Year’s War, helping to drive out the English from France. Believing that God assigned her to this mission, she was charged with heresy and burned at the stake in 1431.
Not only is the filming style kept simple, everything from the set to the storytelling is as simple and direct as it gets, and it makes for an unique experience. Dreyer’s directing is masterful, telling the story mostly through close-ups. I was reminded of Ingmar Bergman who once referred to the face as the most important subject of the cinema. For Dreyer, even when telling a story of historical proportions, it’s as if he realized that all he needed were the facial expressions to convey the essence of what occurred. No other film nails the full potential of stripping away all other elements that would distract from this. To enhance the impact of each close-up and reaction, Dreyer decided to go without make-up in order to accentuate the natural expressions of the faces. By condensing months-worth of historical documentation about the trial, every title card feels direct, advancing the story at each turn and providing the sense that something meaningful will be uttered every time someone speaks.
Shooting the trial in a straightforward way may have made for a good film, but what elevates Dreyer’s film into greatness is that he makes crafty technical decisions: The editing is intense and paced with urgency, while tracking shots and the zooming-in of certain close-ups adds dramatic intensity — something that is all the more worthy when you consider the film was released without a soundtrack. One of the most effective scenes involves Joan being shown a torture chamber. The tension and suspense is pure, and I must commend the editing again for its phenomenal timing.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert’s review begins by providing reasons for praising the great acting performance of Renee Jeanne Falconetti, “a woman who embodied simplicity, character and suffering.” Beyond the acting, the style of the film deserves praise, and Ebert provides valuable historical context when he reminds us that this film was made at the height of German Expressionism and the French avant-garde movement in art. When considering why so many close-ups elevate this film experience, Ebert is insightful when he points out that they help create the illusion of a fearful intimacy. Ebert then provides additional context by referring to the shot-by-shot analysis of David Bordwell of the University of Wisconsin. To end his review, Ebert then considers the following, “Perhaps the secret of Dreyer’s success is that he asked himself, “What is this story really about?” And after he answered that question he made a movie about absolutely nothing else.” A great film and a great review of cinematic art.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like The Passion of Joan of Arc? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: L’Atalante
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc this week, he now has 324 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.