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What can one say about this work of art that has not been said many
times before by those far better qualified to explain both it's
importance and place as cinema and art? I shall not comment on the
greatness of the film's technical achievements; the stunning
cinematography, the production design, the brilliance of the screenplay
based on actual transcripts from the trial, or the perfection of Mr.
Dreyer's direction. The performance of Falconetti as Jeanne d' Arc has
a profundity and depth far beyond my ability to illuminate. I suppose
the best I can hope to do is to share my feelings, however inadequately
expressed, of the effect it had on me. To say that it may be the
greatest film ever made is to sound both obvious and trite. That a work
of such beauty and simplicity, made seventy-six years ago can still
have the power to move audiences in an era of multi-million dollar,
hi-tech, bombastic over-wrought cinematic drivel is in itself a
testament to the vision and genius of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Maria
Falconetti and their collaborators. It is nourishment for those that
hunger for something more in cinema, a feast for the soul. It is a
reminder that film can indeed be art, and this film like all great
works of art, lifts and transports us from the routine of our
work-a-day lives to enable us, if only for a moment to experience the
sublime. When viewing it we look at it as looking in a mirror. That is
to say we look into ourselves. We question ourselves as to our own
beliefs, or the lack thereof and the strength of spirit that enables an
individual to endure the unendurable. Viewing it is a profound
experience the nature of which for myself is transcendent rather than
religious, because I am not in the least a religious person.
Transcendent because it evokes emotions and thoughts that I cannot
wholly account for, or adequately explain.
"La Passion of Jeanne d'Arc" is stark, radiant, exalted, simple, (but never simplistic), and ultimately sublime. The rest is silence.
Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc was made, perhaps, years
ahead of its time- my guess would be that if it wasn't burned after its
initial release, it would've had as stunning an impact on the film
world years down the line as Citizen Kane did. Though the use of
close-ups and distorted angles were not completely new in this film, it
felt like Dreyer was creating a new kind of cinema, one where reality,
however cold and pitiful, was displayed with complete sincerity. There
is also the editing (by Dreyer and Marguerite Beague), which has the
timing that many directors/editors of the modern day could only hope to
achieve (it has the influence of Eisenstein, only in a totally
different historical context), and those moves with the camera by
Rudolph Mate (who would go on to photograph Foreign Correspondent and
Lady from Shanghai) that are precious- to call his work on the film
extraordinary is an understatement.
And it was crucial for Dreyer to use the close-ups and tilted angles and shots where you only see the eyes in the bottom of the frame, and so forth- he's developing the perfect atmosphere in regards to a trial set in 15th century France. It's all those eyes, all those faces, holding all those stolid mindsets that send Joan to her fate. Pretty soon a viewer feels these presences from all these people, so strong and uncompromising, and Dreyer does a miraculous thing- he makes it so that we forget about the time and place, and all of our attention is thrown onto those eyes of Joan, loaded to brim with a sorrow for where she is, but an un-questionable faith in what she feels about God. I wondered at one point whether Dreyer was making as much a point on people's faiths and prejudices in the almighty, or just one on basic humanity.
There have been many before me who have praised Falconetti's performance to the heavens (Kael called it the finest performance in film), but in a way it almost can't be praised enough. What she achieves here is what Ebert must've felt watching Theron in the recent 'Monster'. I didn't even see her in a performance as Joan of Arc- I saw her as being the embodiment of it, as if Falconetti (with Dreyer's guidance) took Joan out of the pages of the trial transcript and her entire soul took over. There is something in an actor that has to be so compelling, so startling, and indeed so recognizable, that a person can feel empathy and/or sympathy for the person the actor's playing. All a viewer has to do is stare into Falconetti's eyes in any shot, close-up or not, and that viewer may get stirred to boiled-down emotion.
For me, it was almost TOO over-whelming an emotional experience- when Joan is about to get tortured, for example, I found myself completely lost from where I was watching the film, everything in my soul and being was with Joan in that chamber, and for a minute I broke out in tears. That's the kind of effect that Dreyer's craft and all the acting work (including Eugene Sylvain as the Bishop Cauchon, and of course Artaud as Jean) can have on a viewer. I'm not saying it has to, yet The Passion of Joan of Arc could- and should- be considered a milestone in cinematic tragedy, where the images that come streaming forth never leave a viewer, and the detail for time and place becomes just that, a detail for the main stage. Love Joan or hate her, this is for keeps.
It's easy to overlook this movie. For modern audience and especially my
generation (I'm 21), this movie is just close-ups of a crying woman and
grumpy old men. But of course that's like saying Mona Lisa is just a
picture of a woman, or The Last Supper is dudes eating. If you
experience it with open mind, The Passion of Joan of Arc will give you
one of the most profound visions of devotion, faith and martyrdom.
I must confess, even I thought the praise of The Passion was too good to be true when I began to watch it. But when the film ended, I wasn't just impressed, I was completely devastated. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a downright amazing realization of Joan's last moments. There's not a hint of sentimentality, and still I was in tears. Yep. Call me a pansy, but this is one of the very few movies that had that impact on me.
I don't know what else to say about this movie, sorry. The Passion of Joan of Arc counts as the most upsetting movie experience I've ever had, but it's definitely a positive one. On the contrary to what the other commentators have said, you don't have to be religious to be receptive in front of this movie. Believe me, I'm a hardcore atheist. If you're going to see this film -- I sure hope you do -- make sure it's accompanied with the Voices of Light soundtrack, which doesn't just fit the film well, but is amazing as a standalone composition, too. I can guarantee you won't look cinema the same way again.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It so often happens that some films take the long way to achieve their
status of classics and worthy of being studied, frame by frame, by
movie lovers who believe in the power of raw performance and skilled
direction of cameras to depict a powerful visual set of images. When
one sees films like VERTIGO which barely registered with movie-going
audiences at the time of their release but after restoration went on to
become one of the best films of the last century, it only shows that
film, as an art, doesn't need a golden statuette to have merit, and
when it's done exceptionally well, it can be seen in any context and
any time period beyond its release date and will still hold its
audience in awe.
Carl Theodore Dryer, to me, created what I believe is, alongside Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE, the most powerful black and white film in cinema history. It would be difficult indeed to say which one is better since both films are landmark in their own cinematic styles and have been dissected frame by frame. Dryer's film has been criticized for either being a pretty collection of still images or being pure visual power: I choose the latter, because in watching THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, I felt not only the extremely uncomfortable intimacy between Joan and her tormentors, but her sublime emotions as they pass through her face as she is mocked, cross-examined, humiliated, and burned at the cross. There is an unearthly beauty in Falconetti's face as she goes through the ringer of emotions not in the overacting style typical of the Twenties but in a completely modern way, as if she were living a reality so far removed from the corrupted priests who bash and condemn her, and her reality would therefore be dangerous to their own beliefs.
And what a stroke of genius, I think, to have the lighting on her face be soft, gentle, in contrast to her detractors who are always lit in harsh light which exacerbates their ugliness and betrays their "devotion" to God as mere politics. Dryer's style of cutting from one actor to the other is also different, and makes this film a surrealist experience, an unsettling, abstract tour through transcendental suffering. There are no defining shots which tell us where exactly is the story taking place (although we don't need to know after reading the transcripts), but we never are allowed as viewers a moment of rest from this suffocating intimacy between Joan and her inquisitors. Some bizarre shots and camera angles give the ending an even more disturbing and horrifying element of what we perceive as a gross injustice to what was a person who held her own beliefs and did not need the Church to sustain it.
Falconetti never did a film before this one and never returned to film acting after this. I have not read much about her, except that she lived in Argentina until her death in 1946. I sometimes wonder why she didn't act again (although she was known to be an accomplished theatre actress more known for comedies than drama) but those are the mysteries of actors who don't have the star ego and only make a few films. She came, only did this masterful performance, and left just as suddenly, and those who re-discovered this film and restored it to its full quality have to be commended for allowing us, who have come almost 80 years later, to experience the power of subtle acting.
I saw this film for the very first time last week and was so tremendously captivated by it that I needed to share this rapture. The innovative camera-angles, the close-ups revealing pain and spirituality. It elevates the human condition and the Art of film. I would love to be able to go on into the whys or hows or technicalities. But my words couldn't do the film justice for the imagery still overwhelms me.
A certain amount of credit must surely be paid to the director for the genius of 'La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc.' The daring camera angles, use of incessant close-ups and peculiar authenticity all may be attributed to Carl Th. Dryer. However, Renee Maria Falconetti is the reason this film indeed surpasses all attempts at reaching the Platonic form of brilliance. Her performance is breathtaking by all accounts. One can not help but remain mesmerized by her expressions. Yes Dryer's gift to us of so many wonderful close shots of Falconetti should be acknowledged. He must be praised for his relentless filming of scenes to produce the desired result. Yet to imagine anyone else in this timeless role (such as Lillian Gish who was said to have been considered) is to envision a less than perfect film. Unimpeded by the silent medium in which she worked, Falconetti's mere tilt of the head or gentle glance pierce the soul of the viewer. We see her speak in Jeanne's native tongue. We see her compelling portrayal of the anguish which the saint most certainly endured. It is almost as if we are watching what the director said he had found; the martyr's reincarnation! This actress presents to us her raw beauty unmarred by powders or makeup - thanks to a decision of Dryer. How bitter-sweet the fact that we have this once thought to be lost silent film and yet can not help now but to long for more Falconetti. And so we return to 'La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc' and with each of many tears and inaudible sighs marvel at the staggering accomplishment which is Renee Maria Falconetti's Jeanne.
I saw this a few months ago on the big screen, just after Nosferatu, another
silent classic. Both showings were supported by a live organ play, which has
been composed directly for the movie, and which suited perfectly. I had seen
Nosferatu before, but i didn´t know anything about `Jeanne`, and so i was in
no way prepared for this overwhelming, soul-rapturing experience.
My eyes were immediately glued to the screen. Unfortunately i had missed the first minutes, so it started for me with the first (?) court scene. The camera wandered through the faces of the court members, circled and focussed on Jeanne´s face. So beautiful, naked, strong and defenseless! I could rave on the technical perfection of this film, it´s clever editing, innovative and gorgeous cinematography, proper historical settings and pure storytelling. Carl Theodor Dreyer created a masterpiece. But the most outstanding feature of this silent are the performances; Maria Falconetti delivers simply the best performance of all times, and i can´t remember of any ´corny` overacting, which distracts most silent movies from the modern viewer, even the accepted classics. `La passion de Jeanne d´Arc´ is purest cinematic art, timeless in every sense.
If you'll pardon the rambling, here are my thoughts immediately after
watching this on DVD an hour ago.......
THE STORY - Many of the times, while watching this for the first time, I thought this was almost the re-enactment of Jesus' last day, seeing the phony trial, the trumped-up charges He endured by legalistic, power-hungry religious leaders of the day who had no clue who God is, and then the tragic end to the central character. Apparently, there were a lot of similarities to Joan of Arc's last day and of Christ's day. However, here it's the Catholic leaders who are the 'bad guys' while in Jesus' time it was the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin. Also, with Joan's story here, she is portrayed far differently in her ordeal than Christ did, the latter taking everything in stride stoically while Joan, without any physical beating, still cried constantly and signed some paper in a moment of weakness (although she later recants that, which costs the woman her life.)
Anyway, about this film:
THE GOOD - Wow, what incredible direction and photography. Scene after scene is pretty amazing and especially so when you consider this was made about 80 years ago! I would like to see the same director and photographer doing work with today's technology.
The expressions on Maria Falconetti's face throughout the film are memorable. A sadder, more pained look on Joan of Arc - or anyone else's - I have not seen in a motion picture. She also must have set a record that still stands for the most tears shed by one person in a movie! The woman's eyes were like faucets.
All of the faces in here - and the film is mostly a series of facial closeups - are amazing and kudos to Criterion for making a DVD that showed these faces with a clear picture and amazing detail. Director Carl Theodor Dreyer's camera angles still look innovative today. He and Orson Welles seem to share the same love of this kind of photography. I found myself numerous times just shaking my head in admiration for how these characters were photographed.
Another big plus for this film was the addition of "The Voices of Light." They made the music score in here fantastic. I can't recall too many films in which I have been so impressed with a soundtrack. The DVD gives you the option of watching this film with or without that audio. I strongly recommend viewers to take the audio.
Finally, the story itself is memorable, with a powerful ending.
THE BAD - I have to make these comments to be fair and honest. It's not hard to understand why many people will find this film almost impossible to sit through, especially those with no emotional or spiritual involvement with the story. That is because it is extremely slow and repetitive. Shot-after-shot of just Falconetti agonizing or crying and weird-looking men staring at her. If you aren't a devotee of cinematography, this movie could be extremely boring after about 10 minutes.
As powerful as the story is, it isn't a movie I would recommend for most people. I think most folks - of any age, frankly - would be turned off after 20 minutes. I understand that. As mentioned, this is not an easy film to view. This might be the longest 80-minute movie you'll ever see, if you aren't into it.
OVERALL - Visually and audibly: an astounding movie and one I am glad to have finally watched. If I was wishing to get into the movie business and wanted to learn how to shoot films, this would be a film I would study numerous times. Otherwise, one viewing is plenty. I can only recommend this film to a very select audience.
One of the last great silent films made during the advent of sound, Carl-Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc is a haunting, riveting portrait of the historical martyr based on documentation from the original trial. Focusing primarily on the series of courtroom examinations that doomed the young warrior, the film gloriously employs vivid close-ups to accentuate the ordinariness (while at the same time exaggerating the most grotesque qualities) of Joan's inquisitors. Maria Falconetti is unforgettable as Joan, perfectly distilling the pain, terror, and saintliness required by what is probably one of the most demanding roles an actor could attempt. The consequence of Joan's conviction -- her burning at the stake -- allows Dreyer to hammer home his exquisite visual motif balancing erotic corporeality with transcendent spirituality.
This is the most fabulous movie I have ever seen.I like old and silent movies, but I was completely blown away with this movie. It is unlike any that you have ever seen.Joan's acting is the BEST I have ever seen. It is so superior to anything being made today. One does not need special effects and computers to make a great movie.And if any movie deserves that title this one does.I couldn't praise it enough. The direction and camera work is perfection. The way it is filmed with mostly head shots and faces you would think it would be boring.But it is the most alive movie I have ever seen and probably ever made.You cannot take your eyes off of Joan. She is mesmerizing.
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