I have such vivid memories of seeing Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 groundbreaking work The Passion of Joan of Arc back in college: the stark, shocking camera angles; the tear-stained performance of Renée Falconetti as Joan in the final few hours of her life; and Dreyer’s landmark dedication to telling almost the entire story in closeups. And it doesn’t matter how many times I see it, it never ceases to rattle me and set off rage bombs aimed at organized religion and the backwards ideas those institutions so frequently inspire.
As has often been said, this 1928 silent film was not meant to provide a serene, meditative look at Jeanne D’Arc’s death at the hands of the an ecclesiastical jury. They charge her with heresy because she says she is a vessel for God and has visions placed there by the deity. All they want from Joan is for her to recant her statements. But the hypocrisy of her judges, many of whom actually believe her but cannot say so publicly, is the fuel that sparks the revolutionary feelings within this rousing movie.
The memorable moments come flooding in one after another. She is spat upon, tormented by her jailers, has her hair sheered completely off, and eventually is burned at the stake in a shockingly graphic series of shots that may trouble some even today. The climax showing the riots that her death sparks outside the Rouen castle provides examples of some of the finest editing you’ll ever see, especially in the service of building tension and frenzy.
But The Passion of Joan of Arc is nothing without that face. Falconetti’s features are both youthful and weathered; her expressions are tortured but joyous. It’s a spectacular performance, half of which is nothing but reaction shots, often with tears running down her face. But the other half is accompanied by dialogue that is drawn nearly verbatim from Joan’s court records. It’s the type of acting that will change your narrow definition of what acting can be.
I can almost guarantee that on more than one occasion, you’ll forget that this film was made 90 years ago. The modernity of the acting and Dreyer’s filmmaking make it seem like something born out of the 1960s. If you haven’t seen it, shame on you. If you have, I’m guessing you haven’t seen it look this good ever. It’s considered one of the greatest works of cinema ever made for good reason.
The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center in a new 2K DCP digital restoration. Silent film with live piano accompaniment by Dave Drazin will happen on Sunday, Jan. 21, 3pm. Other screenings with prerecorded scores include: the choral work “Voices of Light” by Richard Einhorn (Fri., Jan. 19, 6:30pm; Mon., Jan. 22, 6pm; Thurs., Jan 25, 6pm); or a new score by Adrian Utley of Portishead & Will Gregory of Goldfrapp (Sat., Jan. 20, 6:30pm, Tues., Jan. 23, 8pm). I have only seen the “Voices of Light” version and can vouch that is an extraordinary aural experience.