It seems hugely ironic that arguably the greatest Joan of Arc film ever was twice thought lost to fires (just like its subject). After the first disaster, Carl Theodor Dreyer managed to reconstruct a second print from outtakes, but it too would meet a similar fate. However, an intact print of Dreyer’s original cut was discovered in the service closet of a Norwegian mental hospital. It is true, as Joan herself says: “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” The restoration of Dreyer’s uncensored original vision is indeed a blessing. Accompanied by Richard Einhorn’s eerily tragic-sounding Voices of Light score, Dreyer’s freshly restored silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc opens this Friday at Film Forum.
Joan is a simple peasant girl, but she was visited by the Archangel Michael, who commanded her to take up arms against the English to preserve French sovereignty during the Hundred Years’ War. At least, that is what Joan believes with all her heart. However, the clergy of Rouen who remained loyal to the British are determined to force Joan to recant.
As the title suggests, Dreyer’s film dramatizes the trial and execution of Joan, drawing extensively (sometimes verbatim) from the surviving transcripts. Right from the start, it is clear Joan is ignorant of doctrinal controversies, but the innocent simplicity of her answers often exposes the cynical nature of the questions posed of her. As a result, several members of the tribunal will become disillusioned by the inquest’s Machiavellian motives. Unfortunately, Joan is already well past saving, especially when she naively trusts Bishop Pierre Cauchon when he pretends to be a protector dispatched by her revered King Charles VII.
Passion is one of those films whose illustrious reputation is probably far greater than its actual viewership, but for decades it was only circulated in inferior prints. In this case, all the hype is true, starting with Rudolph Maté’s dramatic cinematography, featuring low-angle shots filmed in trenches that predates Gregg Toland’s similar, supposedly revolutionary techniques employed on Welles’ Citizen Kane.
Yet, what really defines the film are the withering close-ups of its star, Maria Falconetti, born Renée Jeanne Falconetti and often billed simply as “Falconetti,” who is undeniably the source of the film’s mystique. It is a nakedly haunting, achingly vulnerable portrayal, captured in unforgiving tight-shots. Reportedly, it was also a physically painful performance, involving long stretches of time kneeling on stone floors. Preferring the stage over the screen, Falconetti only appeared in one prior feature and a short (both from 1917), which further heightens her aura of mystery.
Falconetti defines and personifies the film, but key supporting players hold up their end as well, which helps elevate Passion from a masterwork to a masterpiece. In fact, Eugène Silvain is nearly as remarkable as Falconetti playing the duplicitous Cauchon. We can see he is partially aware of his own damnation, but persists anyway out of misplaced fervor.