Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer) ****

Carl Theodor Dreyer

Cast: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Andre Berley, Maurice Schutz, Antonin Artaud

Background: Carl Theodor Dreyer had already made his mark as a provocative and controversial director with films like Leaves From Satan's Book and Michael. In the late 20s, he decided to make a film about the trial of Joan of Arc. In doing so, he heavily relied on historical records of the trial. Maria Falconetti, an actress who had only appeared in two films over a decade earlier landed the lead role.

Story: Tells the historical story of French hero Joan of Arc (Falconetti), specifically focusing on her 1431 trial for heresy after the English captured her. The trial consisted of biased judges and hateful priests attacking her for saying she had holy visions.

Thoughts: It's easy to see why this is one of the most acclaimed films of the era. Dreyer's minimalist approach to the trial is very interesting. Despite spending a ton of money on sets, almost everything is shot in close up, so we don't see much of that. Instead, we get the intense presence of Falconetti, unwavering in her faith even under the most intense scrutiny; and the increasingly angry reactions of the judges and priests, aghast that this woman withstands their threats and humiliation. The reliance of close ups gives the film a claustrophobic feel, appropriate for a film about a doomed prisoner. Dreyer only uses enough dialogue to tell the story of the trial. He trusts everything else to his skilled actors. Dreyer even intended the film to be seen without music, and that is how I recommend it as well since it is consistent with the style he used throughout the film. For all of his directorial talent, it is Falconetti's passionate performance that really sells the film. He entrusts the film to her, and she absolutely nails it every step of the way.

Postscript: The film definitely had a controversial reception, and was immediately banned in Britain. Over time, it would come to be considered one of the best films of all time. It appeared on Sight and Sound's 10 Best List in 1952, 1972, and 1992. Dreyer's cut of the film was thought to be lost forever, until it was found in 1981 in a janitor's closet of an Olso mental institution, which would seem to be the very last place you would want to show such a film.

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