The Passion of Joan of Arc ★★★★½

After a recent watch of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ wonderful Silent Light, and subsequent urging from LB friends to seek out Dreyer’s Ordet, it became apparent that it was time to tackle Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc from our list of shame as a warm up.

As a reference point, we watched the Criterion DVD with the Voices of Light musical accompaniment track. As another point of reference, my historical knowledge of Joan of Arc was woefully lacking, as is my knowledge of silent film.

I’ll just begin by saying that it’s visually arresting. The ability to see this startling beauty is due to the discovery of a near pristine original print in 1981 and subsequent Criterion restoration, but the real allure is the beauty that was there in the first place. Part of why this was so was the introduction of panchromatic cinema film stock a few years before the production took place. This gave Joan of Arc a look that I’d never seen before in a silent film; a look rich in detailed facial texture. Dreyer uses this facility to maximum effect by concentrating almost exclusively on close-ups. Close-ups so vibrant in their character that I often felt like I was watching a moving Karsh photograph.

This concentration on close-ups was genius. Immediately I could tell that the story was truly about passion and emotion in this historic trial. Without foreknowledge, I could see that it was all about Joan’s commitment, vision, and faith against her captors’ need to make her denounce it. Dreyer doesn’t waste any time on back story; in fact it’s unimportant as this trial is a story unto itself. Faith against oppression. Courage and conviction for ones beliefs when faced with the ultimate test.

I wish I could say that I loved Maria Falconetti’s iconic performance unconditionally, but I can’t. There was a bit too much ‘eye acting’ in the first act for me. This may well be due to my unfamiliarity with silent era films, as I’ve certainly seen a few similar performances, but I don’t know. When contrasted with her completely captivating and emotionally wrenching facial expressions in the second and third acts, the first just seems out of place. By the time we reach the near final minutes, my heart is breaking. This is when I knew this film was the masterpiece of its reputation.

We took the recommendation of friends here about the whole musical score issue, and watched with the Criterion included Voices of Light soundtrack. It was touching, fitting, and just generally wonderful. Seeing an interview with composer Richard Einhorn and soloists vocal ensemble Anonymous 4 revealed that this was truly a passion project that was born out Einhorns’ interpretation of Dreyer’s film. It was meant to be a standalone work, but it’s wonderful how it was integrated with its original inspiration. I’ve since read a bunch of discussion on how Voices of Light influences the viewer, and I would have to agree. I agree in a happy way, though. I like how I was influenced. I’ve read some who comment that Dreyer preferred a purely silent version of his work. Well, I think this is unrealistic, as exhibitors would have always had some form of musical accompaniment. Perhaps the Master of Cinema Blu piano track accompaniment would be more historically accurate, and perhaps less influencing, but I’m of a mind that a good deal of my enjoyment came from this wonderful, inspired, score.

Speaking of score, it’s speaks to how The Passion of Joan of Arc speaks to people, well musicians anyway, that since it’s mid-80’s resurfacing there have been more than a dozen artists who’ve created their own personal interpretation of a score, including one from Estonia.

Well, this has been a wonderful introduction to Dreyer, and I look forward with glee to exploring further. Ordet here we come!

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