Combustible Celluloid Review - The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Joseph Delteil, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Maria Falconetti, Antonin Artaud, Michel Simon
Combustible Celluloid
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With: Maria Falconetti, Antonin Artaud, Michel Simon
Written by: Joseph Delteil, Carl Theodor Dreyer
Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 82
Date: 04/20/1928

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Face Dances

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After seeing thousands of films I thought I knew a little something about the subject of movies. But I realized two days ago that I didn't know anything -- that is until I had seen Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Now a huge gap has been filled.

I had been aware of The Passion of Joan of Arc for years, from various Best Movies of All Time polls, but I have been unable to find it, and/or unwilling to watch it in a less-than-acceptable home video version. In November of 1999, in conjunction with Luc Besson's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (which was not a memorable film), the Criterion Collection released a new DVD version of The Passion of Joan of Arc. As a rabid fan of all Criterion discs, I bought the DVD sight unseen. And it was well worth it.

I watched the film all the way through with its brand spanking new score (by Richard Einhorn and Anonymous 4) and was just about moved to tears. I have the feeling that if I had been in the dark of a movie theater, the flood gates would have been released. I then watched it again with the commentary track by film historian Casper Tybjerg and was equally mesmerized.

The DVD is stunningly beautiful. Apparently, Dreyer's first negative of the film was destroyed by fire. He then assembled a second negative from scratch, and it, too, was destroyed by fire. The best existing print of the film was found in the closet of a Danish asylum in 1981. Criterion then cleaned it up, removing hairs, cracks, and lines. It's a glorious print. Everything is crystal clear and moves at the right pace.

The film has been studied and written about extensively by just about everyone. Roger Ebert wrote that one doesn't know silent film unless one has seen The Passion of Joan of Arc. Pauline Kael called the film "perfection" and called Maria Falconetti's performance in the lead role "the greatest performance ever captured on film." Watching it, I found it difficult to argue with Ms. Kael's opinion. In fact, I don't know that I really have anything new or unusual to say about The Passion of Joan of Arc. I just wanted to share my passionate enthusiasm of discovering it.

Supposedly, many people around the world see it every year, and it continues to make money (even though it was a flop upon its release). But I'm sure there are many more people out there who have not seen it. I juggled in my head whether or not people who are not film scholars would enjoy the film. I decided finally that they most certainly would. According to the commentary, a special screening was held for a large group of unemployed workers, who filled out survey cards and were nearly all overwhelmed by the film's power. I think that anyone who owns a DVD player will be blown away by this film.

A bit about the film itself. Dreyer cast Falconetti, a comic actress on the stage, in the lead role after considering Hollywood stars like Lillian Gish. His original script was a sweeping epic (probably not unlike Besson's new film), but he scrapped it for the original transcripts of Joan of Arc's trial from the 15th century. He condensed them and made a few changes. He then photographed the entire movie in close-ups, foregoing any kind of establishing shots or connecting shots. At any given time, you don't know who is looking where or where anyone is standing in a room. At the same time, Dreyer built complicated sets with windows and doors out of proportion to each other, even though you hardly ever see any of it in the finished film. Finally, none of the actors wear any makeup. The effect is that each face is clearly defined by its lines, warts, sweat, and hair. The overall effect of the whole film is one of confusion and persecution. We identify with Joan, and yet, her attackers appear to be coming from everywhere at once, like vultures.

Joan's face is resplendent, and her eyes are extraordinary. They give the entire performance by themselves. Just five minutes of looking at this face makes you a lover of the film. (I just read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Joan of Arc on film throughout history and the author talked about Falconetti's "funny expressions". I feel sorry for anyone who can't read the emotions on her face.) Perhaps children and the most open-hearted and uninhibited viewers will be the first to really fall in love with The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Dreyer never selected any particular music to go with his masterpiece. And so the Criterion Collection allows us to select either a soundless track or the new score, which is not so much a score as music inspired by the film. But the music is heartstoppingly beautiful and moving, a perfect companion to the film.

Although I'm recommending this film, I ask you not to rent any video tapes that have been sitting on shelves for awhile. They are old and muddy and recorded at the wrong speed. Only rent the new Criterion edition (or see the film in a theater, if you're lucky enough to be able to do so). Sit down with an open heart and an open mind, and you'll be blown away. This is the reason they make movies.

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