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Silent 1928 masterpiece comes to DPAC

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc” (“The Passion of Joan of Arc”) is hands-down the finest silent motion picture of all time. The French-Danish film was a landmark upon its 1928 release the pinnacle of silent movies, even as sound (the so-called “talkies”) was beginning to take over. Yet, its sophisticated style and surprisingly emotional weight makes “The Passion of Joan of Arc” resonate just as effectively today, a startling and amazing accomplishment considering the film’s considerable age.

“The Passion of Joan of Arc” follows the trial and execution of Joan of Arc (played here by Renee Falconetti), using the actual trial transcripts as the screenplay. The limited scope of the film allows for Dreyer’s innovative style, which uses off-centered framing, extreme close-ups and the moving camera to great effect. The harsh lighting and tightness of the cinematography allow the viewer to relate to Joan’s predicament, which grants greater emotional weight to the film’s inevitable conclusion. The film’s dizzying, fragmented style is initially jarring, but ultimately fits the film’s narrative.

Director Ingmar Bergman once claimed that the human face is the most important thing that can be committed to celluloid – he may have had “The Passion of Joan of Arc” in mind. The film is often a juxtaposition of extreme-closeups, of faces that fill the screen and dominate the picture. None of the actors wore makeup, making their facial imperfections all the more striking. Joan looks terrified and innocent, while the judges often look terrifyingly demonic. Few films are as bravely (or brazenly) direct as “The Passion.”

Modern viewers, who often expect silent pictures to be slow or tawdry, might be surprised at the sophistication and solid pacing of “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Dreyer’s work is occasionally dismissed as sluggishly plotted, but the rapid editing and emotional investment in “The Passion” transcend such criticism. The director never made a film as strong as this again, as his talking pictures are weighted down by the restraints of dialogue and convention.

Much of the film’s success attributable to Renee Falconetti, whose Joan was praised by noted critic Pauline Kael as “the finest performance ever recorded on film.” In a role later covered by Ingrid Bergman, Jean Seberg and Milla Jovovich (among many others), Falconetti stands above them all, exacting a powerful and meticulous performance in her only screen role. Dreyer wanted to evoke how the real Joan might have actually felt at the trial, and subsequently took so many takes that he drained much of the emotion out of Falconetti, ultimately resulting in a more realistically effective performance.

The film itself was long considered lost in a fire, but a print was found in the mid-1980s in the broom closet of a European mental institute. The print has since been restored, and will be screened this weekend in the Browning Cinema as part of The PAC Classic 100.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” along with F.W. Murnau’s 1927 “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” and Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 “City Lights,” was simultaneously the valediction and pinnacle of silent cinema. While those films have their supporters, the style, timelessness and emotional resonance of “The Passion of Joan Arc” is indisputable. The cinema is rarely as powerful and effective as it is here. One of the inarguable masterpieces of cinema, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is one of the greatest films of all time and should not be missed.