Friday, October 31, 2008

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of those films that I have been meaning to watch for years. My dad bought the DVD for my mom several years ago, and it has remained on a bookshelf in her study all these years. But somehow I never got around to watching it. I had heard that Maria Falconetti's performance was tremendous, that the film was highly influential, and that many critics upheld it as one of the greatest films ever made. Yet I always resisted, thinking that it would be too long, or too confusing, or too dated, or, frankly, too boring. But seeing as I was home from school today, I thought I should at least give it a chance.

What was I waiting for? The Passion of Joan of Arc is honestly one of the greatest films I have ever seen. I try to avoid statements like that, but I really cannot resist in this case. All of my fears about it being too complex or long were completely unfounded. The film is under 90 minutes long, and the story it tells is very simple. It's not at all a traditional "biopic;" it is only focused on the last days of Joan's life, when she was interrogated and executed by ministers of the Church.

Maria Falconetti, who never again starred in a movie, plays Joan of Arc. She is without a doubt the most extraordinary thing about the movie; I can't imagine what it would be like without her. The film is shot almost entirely in close-ups, and thus relies quite a bit on Falconetti's facial expressions to convey the character. The huge range of emotions that she can express is incredible. Joan's character is established immediately from her entrance. The film's Joan is bewilderedn and frightened, totally overwhelmed by the circumstances she finds herself in. Falconetti never loses touch of the human side of Joan. In other films Joan might be seen as a fearless leader, uafraid to the death. But Falconetti's character clearly struggles with the questions the judges ask her about her relationship with God. She has a huge internal battle about whether to give in and survive or maintain her position. One of the most telling scenes comes when Joan is first taken out to be executed. A priest gives her one last chance to recant, insisting she sign a document that would let her live. Joan hesitates, but then sees a man digging her grave. As he shovels dirt out of the ground, his shovel tosses up a skull. After seeing this, she reluctantly signs the document. Of course, she will later deny this confession and be burned at the stake. Falconetti's performance in this scene, and throughout the film, really needs to be seen to be believed.

But there are other strengths in the film besides the main performance. The director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, uses one editing technique (a quick-cut montage) that I didn't even know was around in the 20's. It is used in the scene where Joan is taken to the torture chamber. The ministers threaten her with torture if she does not sign the document. As a man cranks a spiked wheel, Joan stares on in horror. The scene cuts back and forth between Joan's terrified face, the wheel, and occasionally the ministers. The shots get quicker and quicker until Joan finally faints. This scene is particularly effective, but there are others. Dreyer's use of close-ups and cuts between the various ministers in the interrogation scene are just as effective; they show how overwhelmed Joan is at all of these anonymous faces cursing and condemning her.

The script has no elaborate touches; it is very simple and is based on historical accounts of Joan's trial. However, there are some subtle nuances that occur throughout. For example, there is a great moment when Joan is sick in bed after she has fainted. The bishop tells Joan that the Church is merciful, and always welcomes back a "lost lamb." Joan reaches out her hand to the bishop, seeking comfort. He pushes it away, disgusted at the very idea that she would touch him. There are also some very noticeable Christ parallels throughout the film. I noticed these particularly in the interrogation scene, and also when several soldiers mock Joan and place a sort of makeshift crown on her head - a crown that she later wears when she is burned at the stake.

The Passion of Joan of Arc really is a flawless movie. Maria Falconetti's performance is rightfully hailed as one of the greatest screen performances ever. In addition, the film is fascinating to watch for its innovative camera and editing techniques. Regardless of your religious affiliation or your opinion about Joan, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a groundbreaking film that will deeply touch anyone who is not made of stone.

Verdict: A+

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