Take a Drink: for books
Take a Drink: for spitting, scratching, or nose-picking
Take a Drink: for grotesque faces
Take a Drink: whenever Joan gives a clever response
Take a Drink: for Christian iconography
Do a Shot: for the end
By: Henry J. Fromage (A Toast) –
In 1981 a janitor cleaning a supply closet in an Oslo mental institution found some old film canisters and forwarded them along to the Norwegian Film Institute. It took three years for them to open them and see what they had…
No, the face-melting glory was only metaphorical, as what they found was a complete original copy of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film censored heavily almost immediately upon its release, then fallen victim to not one but two studio fires. For almost 50 years the only version available was a Frankensteined, incomplete version, until that fortuitous chore.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is a portrayal of the trial and execution of the French savior and patron saint Joan of Arc, based on the real historical transcripts of the event.
Wow, where to start? I guess you must begin with Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s eyes. Forget Betty Davis, Falconetti is the undisputed Queen of eye-acting, so much so that she dropped her mic after The Passion of Joan of Arc and never made another film.
That crown’s going nowhere.
Falconetti is a 35 year old woman playing a 19 year old farmgirl turned righteous symbol and military leader, but you never doubt for a moment any aspect of her performance. She’s innocent, otherworldly, perhaps even insane, but intelligent, courageous, and entirely sincere in her convictions. We feel her pain deeply, are absorbed by her tribulations, and are lost in those eyes that are looking beyond them, at something ethereal, perhaps even eternal. It’s quite simply one of the most fascinating performances in the history of the entire medium.
The title illuminates director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s intentions for his film. While based on (and prefaced by a look at) the original historical documents, this isn’t a historical dramatization. This is a passion play.
Passion plays were medieval productions of the trial, torture, and crucifixion of Christ, often in full gory detail and with heightened, heart-rending emotion. Dreyer does the same for Joan of Arc, gearing every aspect of his film towards maximizing the emotion of her ordeal. An entire set was built for the film, full of skewed angles, imposing archways, and oppressive spaces, and he and DP Rudolph Matte shoot it and the actors without makeup in harsh natural light, except for Joan, who is shot in softer light to separate her.
They use a variety of pans and zooms to communicated Joan’s feelings of entrapment and persecution, but the main, and most striking, technique is the use of close-ups. This is a film of faces, Joan’s of course, but also her persecutors’; conniving, skeptical, arrogant, angry, but in some we perhaps glimpse pity, mercy, and even shame.
Not just for the nose-picking.
In the end, we witness a portrait of holiness, in the original definition: set apart. Falconetti and Dreyer’s Joan of Arc is not of this world. Her trial may be preordained, but it’s also inconsequential- her faith makes it so. The institutions of men may work to corrupt divine principles, but they cannot extinguish them.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is a stone-cold masterpiece, as engrossing and jaw-droppingly incredible on the tenth viewing as the first.
A final note: Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, which is included in the Criterion Edition of the The Passion of Joan of Arc, was inspired by the film, not produced for it, but it’s an incredible piece of music, and an incredible accompaniment to the film.