THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC
Review by Michael Jacobson
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 82 Minutes
Release Date: November 9, 1999
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.