Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #9

"You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti."
- Roger Ebert 

For years, it seemed like Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer's landmark silent French film The Passion of Joan of Arc had been lost. The original negative of the film was destroyed in a fire in Berlin in 1928, with only a few of Dreyer's original copies surviving. Some in the French government considered the way Dreyer portrayed the French national hero controversial, and so the film was re-edited - without Dreyer's involvement - before its French premiere. For decades, the re-edited version of the film was the only one available, until a preserved copy of Dreyer's original cut was discovered in a mental hospital in Oslo, Norway in 1981.

The film has been considered a landmark in cinema history - especially in regards to the silent era - for a number of reasons. Limiting the scope of the story only to the trial and execution of Joan of Arc,  the 15th century French heroine who helped lead a rebellion against invading English forces, Dreyer films mostly in close-ups, using dramatic lighting to covey much of the atmosphere that the intertitles cannot supply. The film earned a rapturous reception upon its release, both abroad - where it was recognized as a masterwork - and in France, where audiences praised the treatment of the recently-canonized saint.

But what truly sets the film apart is how essential the central performance from Renee Maria Falconetti is. It has been hailed as one of the greatest performances put to celluloid, and rightfully so: the film couldn't work without her.

More after the jump.
Falconetti (1892-1946) had already established herself as a respected stage actress when Dreyer approached her about playing Joan of Arc. She had only one other film acting role, appearing in a 1917 film called La Comtesse de Somerive. In fact, it was in an amateur theatre production that Dreyer first saw her at work and decided that she would be his Joan. She was also 35 years old when she played the 19-year-old protagonist of the film.

The popular tale surrounding Falconetti's experience on set was that Dreyer was a notorious sadist, forcing her to kneel on stone for hours at a time without showing any emotion in order to get just the right shot. These claims have long been disputed, but it doesn't negate how tortured Falconetti's performance is in this film. The historic Joan of Arc was a teenage girl who believed that God had called on her to lead the resistance against English invasion, and successfully led several campaigns that led to the coronation of King Charles VII. She was captured in one campaign and turned over to pro-English forces, who put her on trial and condemned her to be burned at the stake.

As mentioned, Dreyer famously shot the film almost exclusively as a series of close-ups, with the faces of the actors dominating the screen. Dreyer tends to frame the characters in the same way throughout the film, too, but this is especially evident in the opening trial scenes. Joan is always shot from above eye level, with the camera gazing down at her:

While her accusers - all of whom are men, it should be noted - are almost always filmed from below eye level, as if the camera were looking up at (to) them:

By doing this, Dreyer has established the power dynamic between Joan and her accusers: these men have all of the power in this situation, leaving Joan helpless in her own case. This is the case throughout the film, as Joan never once is given agency, but rather must wait for men who detest her to ultimately determine her fate.

Therefore, Falconetti's performance requires her to express internal turmoil and suppressed anguish through external means. This is a deceptively complex task, especially since Dreyer's decision to film almost exclusively in close-up means that she has only her face as her performance tool. The audience has to be able to read what Joan is suppressing without Falconetti making it explicit, meaning that the performance has to have nuances that are subtle but telling. In the wrong hands, such a performance could be disastrous.

But that's not the case with Falconetti. Not only does she capably handle the challenge, but she makes it gut-wrenching, her remarkably expressive eyes doing much of the heavy lifting. During the trial scenes, her face is fearful, her knowledge of the terror that awaits her showing through her shocked, tear-stained visage. And later, when her judgement has been handed down, Falconetti is able to express the resolve, fear, confusion, anger, and peace that Joan is internally shifting through even though her face remains stoic. In fact, she's framed in such a way that's not unlike the Catholic icon she would become centuries later:

Her suppression and oppression is evident too when she is stripped over her hair (and therefore her womanhood):

And when she confesses that she had lied before, and that she fully believes that she is doing the work of God as instructed by the archangel Michael:

And, finally, when she is burned at the stake, the flames engulfing her as the crowds rally against the pro-English court that executed her.

It's a once-in-a-lifetime performance; ultimately, that proved to be all too true. Falconetti never appeared on film again, instead returning to the stage to mostly star in light comedies with the Comedie-Francaise. She fled Europe following the outbreak of WWII, and ultimately committed suicide in Brazil in 1946. However, her remarkable performance continues to shine in The Passion of Joan of Arc, earning the distinction of one of the finest film performances of all time.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": Mulholland Dr. (2001)

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