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"The Passion of Joan of Arc"
"The Passion of Joan of Arc"
Reviewed by Ivana Redwine

Length: 82 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to see Carl Theodore Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928) on the big screen, and I was absolutely stunned by this sad and beautiful classic silent film. The screening I attended was at a performing arts center, where a live orchestra and chorus accompanied the showing of the movie with Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light," which heightened the emotions conveyed by the images. Now I am thrilled to own the Criterion Collection DVD of "The Passion of Joan of Arc," which permits the film to be viewed to the accompaniment of that same musical work. The DVD has some great special features as well, including an audio track containing an informative feature-length academic commentary.

Although you don't need to know much about history to follow "The Passion of Joan of Arc," I think the following background information might enhance your experience in watching the film: In the 15th century when England and France were several decades into the Hundred Years War, England at one point had seized control of much of France. Then a teenage peasant girl called Joan of Arc, believing she was on a mission from God, rallied French troops to important victories, but she was eventually captured. Eager for Joan's death, but wishing to evade responsibility for it, the English turned her over to an ecclesiastical court composed of French clerics who supported the English.

"The Passion of Joan of Arc" begins its account of Joan's life with her trial, where the central issue appears to be that if she truly believes she is directly responsible to God rather than to the Roman Catholic Church, she is guilty of heresy. The movie goes on to show the illiterate young woman being interrogated, threatened, and cajoled by various learned French clergymen, while English soldiers wearing metal helmets ominously watch over the proceedings. As the film winds down, footage of Joan being burned at the stake is intercut with sequences of an unarmed mob of angry French peasants being brutally driven out of Rouen Castle by club-wielding English soldiers.

When I watch "The Passion of Joan of Arc," I am fully engaged both emotionally and intellectually. Dreyer's genius was that he found a way to communicate to me his vision of the psychological reality of the 15th century. He achieved this partly through an unusual visual style, which involves an inordinately large number of close-ups of faces, the use of hardly any establishing shots, keeping the duration of all shots short, and the use of odd camera angles and unexpected points of view.

For me, "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is unforgettable because of the many close-ups of the actress known as Falconetti, who plays the title role. Her expressive face and body language evoke big emotions. Particularly memorable is the scene where Falconetti as Joan wears a crown of straw, which has been mockingly placed on her head by English soldiers. Falconetti was primarily a stage actress, and the Internet Movie Database indicates that outside of "The Passion of Joan of Arc," she appeared in only one other movie. If you're interested in learning more about this actress, don't fail to listen to the audio interview with her daughter, Helene Falconetti, on the DVD.

The DVD contains an interesting commentary track on which Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg of the University of Copenhagen provides a wealth of information about "The Passion of Joan of Arc." Tybjerg says that Dreyer took large sections of his screenplay for the film from texts based on minutes of the legal proceedings against Joan. However, Tybjerg points out several instances of Dreyer departing from the historical record when it suited his dramatic purposes. Perhaps the most important example of this is that Dreyer conceived of the events in the movie as taking place within a single day, whereas in reality they were spread over a period of several months.

The DVD also contains other items of interest. The feature on production design helps us get a better understanding of the film's elaborate set, which is seen to be much more stylized than most people realize after their first viewing of the movie. There's also a fascinating history of the many versions that "The Passion of Joan of Arc" has gone through over the years. Finally, there are features on the DVD devoted to Einhorn's outstanding musical work "Voices of Light," and packaged with the DVD is a booklet that contains the libretto for this piece.

Selected Special Features on the DVD:

  • Commentary Track With Dreyer Scholar Casper Tybjerg
  • Production Design Archive
  • Version History
  • Audio Interview With Falconetti's Daughter
  • Restoration Demonstration
  • 6-Page Booklet About DVD and Film, Including Statement by Dreyer
  • Optional Audio Track With Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light" Music
  • Richard Einhorn Essay
  • Video Essay on "Voices of Light" Production
  • 28-Page Booklet Containing "Voices of Light" Libretto
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