(Review of The Passion of Joan of Arc, the silent film classic, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary.)
Celebrating its 90th anniversary, Dreyer’s film remains starkly modern in its composition and complexion, fixed in an otherworldly and hallucinogenic present. Jean Cocteau stated that the film played like “an historical document from an era in which cinema didn’t exist.”
Based on the actual transcripts from Joan of Arc’s trial, Dreyer compressed twenty-nine interrogations over eighteen months into a single scene. A jigsaw asymmetry of shots and angles, cinematically akin to the German Expressionism of the period, as well as a jarring blitzkrieg of close-ups, gives the film the feel of a prolonged gothic nightmare, with Joan’s inquisitors a cadre of incubi in vestments and robes. Rapacious intimacy is achieved through enclosure (antecedent to Lars von Trier’s claustrophobic tour de force, Dogville), and this stringency is made even more compelling by the fact that the entire set was a complex rendition of medieval architecture, yet only factors in to the film as more of a peripheral sketch, or skeletal imprint. It is the faces, framed in a rapidity of cuts and interpolations, which play out as visual arias in an operatic siege, with Falconetti’s face starring in all its amorphic genius. Stunningly mercurial in its subtle transitions, the vocabulary of the soul, unfettered, can be read in Falconetti’s expressions. From glazed vacancy, that faraway within, implying Joan’s beatific rapture, to the blinkless intensity of her moonshot eyes, to the slow and lugubrious movements of her head, Falconetti executes a poetic clinic on what can be conveyed from the neck-up. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, when an inquisitor asks Joan, “Who taught you the Our Father,” a tear glistens like a lighted scar along Joan’s cheek, as she responds, “My mother.” Yes, Joan may be the world’s most famous cross-dressing heretic turned saint, and the daughter of God, but she was also her mother’s child, and a vulnerable teenage girl caught between the crosshairs of visionary living and fragile wants. These nuances are indelibly captured by Falconetti’s performance, and Dreyer’s direction.
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