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THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Renee Falconetti
Director:  Carl Theodor Dreyer
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  82 Minutes
Release Date:  November 9, 1999

Film ****

Renee Falconetti’s performance in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterful The Passion of Joan of Arc is possibly the most legendary ever captured on film.  In complete silence, Ms. Falconetti communicates volumes upon volumes with her expressive face, and through her indelible work, audiences continue to be taken along for Joan’s terrifying final hours as though experiencing them first hand.  The fact that this movie represented her one and only foray into the art of motion pictures has certainly helped to cement that legend.

And I have to say, I do so love Criterion for their resolve in bringing this little-seen but undeniably important film classic to DVD.  Not only is their transfer, complete with restoration work stellar (more on that further down), but just the fact that they obviously spent a good bit of time and money in bringing this definitive version to the viewing public, even though being a silent, foreign film, they may never see a profit returned on their investment.  Criterion continues to be the company that most caters to the serious lovers of cinema, and they’ve further anchored that reputation with this release.

Dreyer takes a simple premise and locale and uses his camera work, editing, and the performances of his actors to create one of the most powerful, artistic, and unsettling films ever made.  The story involves young Joan, on trial for heresy, and the monstrous, hypocritical judges who would eventually see her burned.  You may not have felt such anger rising from viewing a film until you see the dastardly ways in which these leering, pompous men go about their business.  Joan claims to have heard the voice of God, and such a claim, naturally, is highly detrimental to old men who have spent their lives in the Church and have not heard His voice.

Falconetti presents her Joan as a mixture of vulnerability, great sadness, and occasionally a genuine sense of her character’s ability to see beyond what the rest of us see.  And Dreyer’s use of filming in practically all close-ups brings the menace of the judges unsettlingly to life.  First of all, he creates a claustrophobic atmosphere by never giving the viewers the traditional establishing shots of the setting.  We don’t know how big this room is, but given the constant use of close-ups juxtaposed together, it seems very small, and makes the judges that much more intimidating.  They glare down at her with exposed teeth and crinkled brows, desperate to erase for all time the claims this young woman has made.  And Joan is constantly shown looking up, quietly, tearfully.  She knows she’s done nothing wrong, and being barely nineteen, she’s hardly psychologically able to continually defend herself against those who would play mind games with her and twist her words around to make her seem either crazy or evil.  Also, by focusing on the last hours of her life, and not dealing with the heroism she displayed in battle that has been documented, we are left with the image of the fragile, frightened Joan under persecution without a trace of the bold leadership she had once displayed.

Consider that she claims her mission from God was to deliver France from her enemies.  The judges ask her, rather smugly, if that means that God hates the English.  She doesn’t know.  Or when they ask her if St. Michael, the Archangel, appeared to her fully clothed, and if he had long hair.  Why wouldn’t God be able to clothe him, she wonders, and why would he cut his hair?

I don’t think I’m giving away any ending here by saying that Joan dies at the stake.  The finale is one of the most hypnotic, frightening, and lingering images of the film, as she slowly succumbs to the flames (that eventually even destroy the accusation of heresy nailed above her head), whilst the church guards are quietly preparing for the riot that they believe will follow her death, instigated by the townspeople who loved her.

Earlier in her trial, she informs the judges that God has promised her deliverance from her enemies in a great victory.  Later, as she is being prepped for the stake, she is asked what she now thought of that promise.  “God’s ways are not our ways,” she answers wearily.  Her deliverance is her death.  Her victory is her martyrdom. 

Video ***1/2

I’ve owned a VHS copy of this movie for years…it was the only one I could find.  I have to say I was completely shocked when I popped this Criterion DVD into my player.  I have never seen such a difference between an existing print and a restored print.  Criterion has successfully rescued this classic from murky images and shadowy features into a clean, crisp, bright, and well defined print…one of the best currently available from the silent era.  Granted, a film from the 1920’s will never be perfect…even with care and work…but if you could see the difference I have seen, you too would sing Criterion’s praises. 

Audio ***1/2

There is the option of watching the film silently, or with a tremendous musical accompaniment…a piece called “Voices of Light”, composed by Richard Einhorn that was inspired by this film, and enhances the moods quite nicely.  This score sounds incredible, with front and rear stages employed to deliver it, and is one of the most dynamic and forceful pieces of music I’ve yet heard on a DVD.

Features ****

Criterion has seen fit to include a veritable treasure trove of extras for film buffs with this disc, including a film historian commentary track, a restoration demonstration, a detailed look at some of the various prints of this picture that have existed throughout the years, including video clips, a production design archive, and interviews with Renee Falconetti’s daughter, Helene.  Plus, there is a full libretto of “Voices of Light” included in the package, along with a video essay concerning the piece.

Summary:

Silent movies are more than just wide-eyed, open-mouthed, mustache twirling melodramas.  The best films of that era represent visual cinema at its most imaginative and unbridled, and The Passion of Joan of Arc is a powerful, shining example not just of a silent film, but film in general.  And Criterion has pulled out all stops in creating this disc, which should stand for decades as the definitive version of a landmark classic.