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Thursday, March 13, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Passion of Joan of Ark (1928)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring: Maria Falconetti

This is a film unlike any you will ever see. Filmed almost entirely in close-up, it limits the viewer’s visual stimuli and concentrates attention on the faces of the characters, most notably that of Joan of Ark. The film is about the trial, torture and condemnation of Joan of Ark and conveys her anguish not through rousing, impassioned speeches, but simply by looking at her face. The performance by Maria Falconetti as Joan has been called one of the best ever committed to film, and that is exactly right. She gives us so much and does it without flash or histrionics, just with her face. When the film is finished, you simply sit there, amazed at what you’ve just seen.

The set design – what little we get to see of it – is stark. It basically consists of a couple of rooms, the dimensions of which we never really get a handle on. Sometimes the rooms seem large, sometimes small, and we’re never confident about what shape they take or where the characters are situated in them or where, exactly, any given character is in relation to another. This aids in our identification with Joan because we, too, feel confused and disoriented in this setting, unable to get our bearings. This isn’t to say that the vagueness of the setting is distracting; quite the opposite. The simplicity of its design is its strength, allowing director Carl Theodor Dreyer to take complete control of the audience’s focus as he arranges his images in very exact ways. You soon forget about the setting itself and concentrate fully on those images, especially those of the quietly suffering Joan.

The film makes no secret of where its sympathies lie and very directly establishes Joan as good and her judges as bad, but it isn’t about whether or not Joan communicated with God. It’s an indictment of the system of justice that put Joan on trial, tortured her, mocked her beliefs and eventually burned her at the stake. Whether she heard the voice of God or not isn’t the point – whether she did or not is no excuse for the way she is punished. The film is quick to establish her judges as villains, focusing on their hard, hateful faces and contrasting them with the serene blankness of Joan’s face, shooting them from below so that they loom over Joan (and us) monstrously, while shooting Joan from above so that we look down at her, and feel protective of her. There are characters who sympathize with Joan and want to help her, but it’s the mob mentality of the rest that wins out, pushing her allies aside, and determining her fate. We look at these men, these ghoulish figures who seem to surround her, shot in some instances so that it appears as if they’re stacked one atop the other, an insurmountable wall of hate. We’re chilled by their eagerness to condemn her, the way that her fate has been decided before she’s even entered the room.

Not enough can be said about the performance by Maria Falconeti. There is a scene where her tormentors place a crown of thorns on her head and proceed to mock and laugh at her as she sits there, completely still in her suffering. It’s a shattering scene in which she seems to do nothing, and yet does everything. At no point in the film does she play up for the camera. Her movements and expressions are always minimal, but manage to communicate so much about what she’s thinking and feeling. She believes that she’s heard the voice of God, that she’s been chosen by him, and therefore believes that there is a plan and a reason for her suffering. She doesn’t seek death, but accepts it as what must happen. Her body may be fragile, but her spirit and her mind are strong - these ideas all come across through the way that she relates to her tormentors, through glances and gestures that wouldn't be sufficient now, when actors have to verbalize everything and scream to express passion.

In describing the film, I’m perhaps doing it a disservice. Some people, when they learn that it is a silent film and shot predominantly in close-up, will immediately shut their minds to it as being something that only a film snob would enjoy, but that couldn’t be less the case. This is an absolutely engrossing movie, one of the best examples of the power of film to express feeling and thought. It’s a film that must be seen to be believed, and once seen, it will never be forgotten.

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