52-week film challenge, week 6
If you only watch one silent movie from the 1920s in your life … well, you’re really cheating yourself out of some amazing filmmaking. But The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most riveting ones, lovingly restored and enhanced to 4K from a nitrite copy found in a Danish archive in 2005. It is — by far — the sharpest and clearest silent movie you’ll ever see, with a deep focus on faces, from its star, Maria Falconetti, and across the entire cast. You can count the pores on everyone’s faces in the close ups — that’s how amazing the restoration has been.
I’ve seen the film twice: once at a screening in Tampa accompanied by a live chorus and chamber orchestra many years ago, and just recently the slightly-abridged 4K version with the Gregory and Utley score from 2010. Both times, the film’s visuals grab you immediately and do not let you go — you scarcely want to blink for fear you will miss another pin-prick sharp facial close-up or tear falling from Falconetti’s face.
The film is based on the actual record of the trial of Jeanne d’Arc from 1431. Being a silent film, Falconetti spends most of her many close-ups portraying her suffering, her passion, her holiness, her hope, and her despair — her performance is often praised as one of the greatest ever. The evocative faces of her judges, prosecutors, pious church officials, and spectators are an astonishing gallery of human emotions, especially the uglier ones.
Eventually, Jeanne is convicted of heresy and nearly put to death before she finally agrees to recant at the last minute, whereupon she is sentenced to life in prison. Very shortly thereafter, she accepts the truth of her fate and takes back her recanting, finally understanding that her mission is to be a martyr and that her promised “release” from her suffering is her death.
Dreyer doesn’t shy away from filming the alarmingly violent and gruesome burning at the stake, with the villagers helplessly trying to revolt in anger at the betrayal of the church, and the murder of a saint. Following an hour of the trial, the change of pace of Jeanne in prison and then executed makes for a horrifying but fulfilling climax to the film.
The clarity of the restored print coupled with the skill of the filmmaking really makes you wonder if other silent-era classics that still have that softer, more cartoonish cast to them might also be able to get this level of restoration and enhancement, as the combination of interstitial titles, heroic music, and the riveting performances really make the silent era more relevant to modern audiences. In Dreyer’s relentless use of close-ups (combined with some surprisingly inventive shots during the final action sequences), his influence on many future filmmakers, particularly Fellini, is keenly felt.
In the most recent poll from Sight & Sound on the greatest movies thus far, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc ranked 21st (tied with Late Spring). It has always been somewhere on the top 100 list since the first version in 1962. Yes, you really ought to see it — preferably with a live chorus & orchestra, if possible. This is an essential film that should be seen by anyone who prizes film as its own unique art form.