Film Project #1
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Director: Carl T. H. Dreyer
Starring: Renee Falconetti
#1 on my list of the greatest films ever made
Sometime around the turn of the century, I was at the Shawnee Public Library for what was usually a weekly visit. I would check out three films to watch during the week and then return them the next week and get three more. I'd always pick three different kinds of films, so that I might be prepared for being in different moods during the week when I wanted to watch movies. Every week I didn't always get around to watching all three, but since it was free, that didn't matter. I'd just check it out again sometime.
During this period I was making a concerted to effort to watch all the AFI 100 films that I hadn't seen before. I had seen sixty some odd when the list came out and within about a year and a half had seen ninety-six of them total. I was also watching lots of foreign films for the first time -- Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, Renoir, Truffaut, etc. This particular film piqued my interest. I'd never heard of it. I'd never heard of the director. It was a silent film -- I love silent film. So, I thought it was worth trying. I didn't expect what I was going to see.
The same as the other night, I watched it with no sound, which made the images even more powerful. The film began and initially seemed pretty typical grainy old images. The composition of the images, at first, seemed typical of the period and nothing extraordinary.
Then Joan is led into the chamber. Renee Falconetti is a haunting actress. Dreyer filmed her in extreme close up. Far more extreme than any close ups I had seen from films of this era. And the extremity of the close ups is discomforting, but in a good and powerful way. You aren't sure what to make of this face and its wide open eyes. Is this silent film era over-acting or is it one of the great performances captured on film. I still don't know the answer to that for certain. Maybe this question is to unsettle us just like the question about the real Joan whether she was a genuine mystic or a naive simpleton or crazy or a warrior using tales of visions.
I sat there mesmerized by this film. Dreyer keeps using the extreme close up on every character. The faces of these judges and priests are incredibly evocative. The faces themselves seem to be great works of living sculpture that Dreyer was lucky enough to capture on film. Occasionally the camera will focus on one character as he moves through the crowd, and it follows him with a lyricism that draws you in and makes you wonder what this one person is all about. Most of the dialogue being spoken between characters is left untranslated, but you don't need to "know" what they are saying in order to follow what is happening. In fact, I think that this is one of the film's greatest assets in that you simply watch this transpire. For example, there is one elderly cleric that the film focuses on for a minute or so. His face is amazing. His eyes are incredible. The old man clearly objects to something, but you never really know exactly what. But you don't need to. You know that this is a kind, caring old man who doesn't fully agree with his colleagues and their treatment of this young girl. It is all there in the visual images.
Part of what amazes me about this film is the use of different camera angles. One of the innovations of Citizen Kane is that Orson Welles shot the scenes from angles that no one had dared to use before. But that sort of camera work is present in this film, years ahead of Welles' ground-breaking work. I've only seen one other Dreyer film, and though powerful, it is not as innovative in its camera work. This seems to be a unique work.
The film ends with Joan's death. And it is shockingly graphic. You watch the body burn, in what must have been a startling effect for 1928. All the while this is interspersed by a riot from the people being put down by the troops who use maces to beat them, some to death. It is brutal to watch.
When I saw this film the first time, I sat in awe as it ended, thunderstruck by its beauty, power, and innovative style. I felt immediately that it was the greatest film I'd ever seen. The friends I e-mailed to describe my find didn't know the movie and were skeptical of my conclusion. Those that saw it, though not necessarily agreeing with my ranking it number one, agreed that it was a profound and innovative film.
I stand by my feelings about this film. I was glad to watch it for only the second time two nights ago. It holds up. Rarely is there filmmaking this powerful, this raw, this pure, this sublime.