The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc) Reviews
Powerful drama. Starts rather tamely, and it seems like the movie could just be a back-and-forth dialogue between Joan and the judges / priests. However, the dialogue is spot-on, and the verbal jousting is wonderful to behold.
Great direction by Carl Theodor Dreyer. His use of close-ups is a masterstroke, giving a great intimacy with and engagement to the character of Joan. Quite gritty, realistic direction too. Very graphic for 1926 - the last few scenes are incredibly harrowing.
What makes the movie is the performance of Maria Falconetti in the lead role. Superb, conveying vast amounts of emotion and thought without saying a word. Surely one of the greatest physical drama performances in all of cinema.
The emission of faces from the lens seems endless at first, and is striking because it is so uncomfortable to be so close to so many subjects under such conditions, where the situation is both so tense and so pathetic at once. But you get used to being close to these endless faces because it is worthwhile seeing them. I cannot understand what autism or other mental fracture caused this film's contemporary critics to shout down the profound use of close-up shots, but I can comprehend that they probably lacked something in the mind that allows one to deal with the unexpected. Perhaps they should have never been born to become reviewers, because to me such condemnations resemble the person who enjoys the habit of spilling beans because they are better at picking them up than carrying them and as a side they more enjoy counting things than being useful. The over-intracted, puppet-like film critic who is out to suckle the teats of the professors at film school must really revel in a film such as this because it breaks so much convention but without falling from grace. If the film breaks convention and is miserable and not worth watching, it's not worth commenting on and it is not worth breaking your neck over spinning about how awful it was directed. But if the film breaks convention and is powerful and magnetizing such as "The Passion" is, then the ardently trained and quiet-minded film school stalwart has endless fodder to smirch the film with at equal proportion to the energy they have not spent on their own imagination.
It is not enough to call a film like this "ahead of its time" or even more aptly "ahead of the time" (meaning, "ahead of this time".) For a film like this it could even be said, and honestly, that "it should not have been made", and the statement need not even require clarification as to whether life and cinema would be better or worse in the film's absence. Both are directly implied and only a person of sufficient imagination can appreciate that level of criticism, can see the possibilities and understand the rapport. It is with such open-mindedness and such acceptance of both the good and bad in life that a simple observation can influence the lives of many people and yet remain nothing more than its original, simple roots all the while, and that is what this film is exactly.
You heard (read) me; Of course I don't mean that they are in high demand in Netflix -they certainly are not, what I mean is that if you take away from someone one of his primary functions, his survival instinct with heighten the remaining. Filmmakers at the beginning of the previous century, had in their disposal as many wonderful tales to tell, as filmmakers of today do. The problem, of course, is that they had limited means to tell them; not only the films were silent, but the technology offered little help in their endeavor.
The visionary directors of that time didn't give up. Instead they transcended their infant medium by offering innovative narratives and superb imagery. The plunge into madness that Das cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The cabinet of Dr. Caligari - 1920) was, the beautiful Körkarlen (The phantom carriage - 1921), and of course, from the creator of this film Carl Dreyer, the disturbing Vampyr (1932), are all excellent examples of the beauty that silent cinema has to offer.
So I had my hopes up, when this film started; and it didn't disappoint. It begins with Dreyer's innovative narration; close-ups to the actor's faces in contrast with a minimalistic background, loitered with just a hint of surrealism. The faces themselves were great portrayals of their owner's state of mind; Jeanne appeared exhausted, but defiant and the stony, inquisitive faces of the clergy, seemed to surround her, creating a beautiful aesthetic. The expressive face of Maria Falconetti, who played Jeanne, depicts her emotions with precision and the juxtaposition with her captors's judgmental looks highlighted every emotion she felt.
Unfortunately, this is the point were the praise stops. I will begin the enumeration of the movie's faults with the story. Well, there is none. From the first minute, the movie informs us, that it will be a recount of the final stage of Jeanne's trial and the moment of her death at the stake. Given the nature of the unconventional narration, the fact that there is no story could be forgiven. Dreyer wanted us to have a unique experience and his dedication is evident throughout the film.
The main flaw of this movie is that after the first few minutes, when the awe of the innovation subsides, we are stuck with repetition. For -seemingly- countless minutes, we witness Jeanne squint-eyed and wide-eyed while she contracts her face muscles, under the icy stares of her captors. I just described 80 out of the 90 minutes of the film's duration.
Dreyer used the technique again in Vampyr, providing us with a memorable scene where we watch a close up of a young girl's face after she wakes up from her stupor and feels the grasp of vampirism she was afflicted with. Dreyer proves that sparing use of the technique can provide great scenes, but in this film he it constantly, making the film unbearable.
The acts themselves are repetitive; the recurring theme is the clergy trying to make Jeanne bow to their will and her refusing. All during close ups.
Moreover, the captioned dialogue emphasizes the film's stagnation; The clergy's accusations are basically the same all the time and Jeanne's replies lack eloquence. Her only interesting response, is her reply to the question "are you in state of grace right now?". Given the film's minimalism and attention to detail, I expected better writing.
The ending is a well-shot scene, beautifully opposite to the rest of the film's rhythm, but maybe I just liked it because it signaled the film's end.
Concluding, The Passion of Joan of Arc, after the first few minutes, failed to spark my interest or incite any kind of emotion from me (unless we count drowsiness). I am sure it has already educated generations of filmmakers and will continue to do so; the techniques used clearly have artistic merit and the whole film is a study in directorial meticulousness, but as an experience for the viewer, it fails miserably. 3.5/10.
If you desperately want to watch a silent film about witch-trials you can do better by watching Häxan (1922). The segments about the trials were more emotional and certainly more thought provoking.
I'd like to add another point. The essence of the story is that a rebel leader was captured by authorities, controlled by those she rebelled against. Obviously she was going to be killed. That simple realization made me completely apathetic to the religious narrative and to the whole Jeanne d'Arc tale. Since her fate was sealed at the moment of her capture, I didn't care for the excuse they would use for executing her. I care even less that the clergy felt that their power was being undermined. Again, Häxan did it much better.
This is never more true than with the portrayal of the title character. Renée Maria Falconetti, appearing in her only major motion picture release, gives a performance so authentic and heart-breaking that it's often hard to believe that is actually is a performance. The tears, the smiles, the slow way she moves, her near-permanently widened eyes, everything about her screams inner anguish and torment. It's sometimes difficult to watch, considering just how much the actress suffered from genuine psychological issues, so the pain could have been more real than anyone knew.
It does have its faults unfortunately. Without the benefit of sound the film must frequently cut to screens of dialogue to spell out what is being said, which is often distracting and cuts short some of the emotions. Also, while it is very engaging, the fact that we spend most of it witnessing close ups of grumpy/tear stained faces can make it hard to get through. But as an experience, a timeless drama which explores the deepest despair of the human soul, it's a film that everyone simply has to see, if only once. It's certainly a tough journey, but it's one you'll be genuinely thrilled that you decided to take.