Sight & Sound List #9: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
by Edward Montgomery
Chances are, you have not seen this film. Please, please, please try to change that.
The Passion of Joan of Arc has stayed with me, simmered with me, for over a month by this point. I knew of its legend. I knew of its praise. I knew that Marie Falconetti was known to all film critics as the face of silent cinema, a time we do not know, can not know, and can only observe as if it were a museum piece. And, of course, the problem with museum pieces is that there are always others: always other cries of attention and wonder from the art world, always something new to see, that it makes putting off a silent film is so easy. You want to pretend you have no connection to that world—it is a curiosity, not a requirement. And yet, a few days after being asked to write about this film, I found myself in a theater that simply happened to be showing Joan, crying, absorbing the power of the light before me.
In many ways, The Passion of Joan of Arc is the epitome of what film should be conceptually: a nearly-complete visual experience. Mostly a collage of mid- to close-range shots, Dreyer’s film is a far-cry from the type of production that Cecil B. DeMille would have once encouraged. We are not given the battle scenes or the triumphs of the French army when led by Joan in battle. We are not given the hot rush of blood from fallen men, nor the cries of the dying. No scene of revelation or miracle exists. We are only given Joan, who stands with such purity and faith before her accusers that, while watching this film, I can only describe the emotion that I felt as embarrassment: I am embarrassed to see such genuine suffering, to be witness to it, and to know how easily I would have sat on the bench opposite this poor girl.
I am not a good enough man to watch Joan’s story. And yet, I kept watching.
Carl Theodor Dreyer saw something, forced something, that we cannot believe or experience in our modern world. There is no film that can compare to seeing Joan’s face in the awe of her experience and her confusion at those who would ask to share it. The genesis of this face, of Falconetti’s eyes, came from Dreyer forcing his actress to kneel on bare concrete hours before the shot began, to search for the calm, love, and transported spiritual élan that needed to exist despite the pain she was feeling.
After completion, the original film was lost to a warehouse fire, re-cut and created again from secondary shots—this version lost once more in yet another fire. Thought lost for almost forty years, the original cut would resurface almost fifty years later in the closet of a forgotten mental asylum in Scandinavia.
This is a story of a woman who desperately believed in her own experience, a story of a Church that could not believe or accept her visions, a martyrdom that lives in all our memories, five-hundred years gone, and it has been brought forth to us, tumbled through the years along its rocky path to find itself seated in simple, perfect humility as one of the greatest films ever made.
I once considered joining the Catholic Church and becoming a priest. Even now, in a relative abyss of non-belief, I sometimes musingly consider that option. When I look back, I find such faith hard to believe—where did it come from? Where has it gone? The jaded and cynical approach to life that we all find so easy, the existential dissatisfaction, haunts me now as much as those memories do—why do I find it so easy to believe in nothing as opposed to something? What has become of my love of the quiet contemplative joy that came with my early days in the Church? These questions have no answers.
Yet, these thoughts, in whatever form they take with whomever on their own journey of faith, are the amazing power of The Passion of Joan of Arc. The film reassures even as it condemns. How scared are we, when we fill the shoes of those with power over faith, that we ignore and dismiss possibilities beyond our own comprehension? How easily do we give up our experiences when shown the possibility of them to be unreal? How much in our lives is the difference between watching Joan as she struggles over her choice to become a martyr for her beliefs, and in watching Falconetti produce a performance of a lifetime, one so incredible that she never again returned to any cinematic role at all?
The beauty of The Passion of Joan of Arc is found in its confluence of vision become Art and its ground of history returned to the present. The final violence after Joan is placed on the stake comes too soon, should have never come, and yet feels more than destined—it feels like our own lives, each and every time we attempt to balance the private moments and feelings with the great external powers and questions that define the world around us. Where we go after this battle, whatever direction we walk, we can only hope will be as great as that soft-lit face of hope and awe that Joan once had, responding to her interrogators, admitting she made a mistake, that she will remain with her beliefs, and that she will choose her own path after all.
As I said—I have no words, and my questions rise up from me, ashes drifting toward something greater than myself, or the dusty ground, whichever I choose to believe.
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- aneducation said: If I were to make a list of Top 10 Best Performances of All Time, Falconetti’s would definitely be on the list.
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