Pauline Kael went on record claiming it to be one of the single greatest performances recorded on film. I don’t have that kind of chutzpah; all I vouch for is the fact that once you see Renee Falconnetti’s performance in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, your heart will never forget it. At a time when screen actors were simply unable to speak to the audience, Falconnetti’s Joan is a powerful reminder that the best actors don’t need words.
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film gives us not the Maid of Orleans’ entire life story, nor does he depict Joan of Arc as either a granite saint or a delusional martyr, but he gives us simply the final hours of a remarkably brave young woman who, after a long and tortuous physical and internal process, dies for her beliefs.
Courtroom dramas can often be as cliched as entertainment can get but not here. Dreyer’s even-handed portrait, coupled with Falconnetti’s intense portrayal, give us a very human young woman who cannot accurately count her age, but whose convictions run marrow-deep. For a film about Joan of Arc, Dreyer bravely and simply stuck to the trial for her life, forgoing any potentially grand battle scenes; consequently, this is a film that would live or die based on the lead performance, and it is impossible to imagine anyone giving a more heart-wrenching portrayal than Renee Falconnetti. Dreyer is neither trying to convert us nor mock the faithful; Joan of Arc is presented as enigmatically as the Mona Lisa; indeed, by focusing solely on the final hours of her life, it presents us with far more of a psychological puzzle than we’d otherwise have.
Falconnetti’s profound gaze may have perhaps partly inspired Leonard Cohen’s song on Joan of Arc, which sums up her funeral pyre with:
I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
I saw the glory in her eye.
Myself I long for love and light,
but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?
In the home stretch of Bergman’s most overtly religious work, 1962’s WINTER LIGHT, we have the crippled man’s speech to his doubting pastor about physical pain vs emotional pain, with the hunchback eventually favoring, through some of Bergman’s most eloquent dialogue, that the internal pain far outweighs the other, because the physical pain eventually ends. The man is particularly emphasizing Christ’s suffering on the cross compared to His agonizing loneliness at being abandoned by His friends and even, eventually, God Himself and how that hurt far more than the nails and thorns.
All this can equally be applied to Joan’s funeral pyre – we may never go through the profound physical agony and public shame, thankfully, but the utter lonely introspection that becomes her Via Dolorosa is one we all walk down, and Dreyer masterfully dramatizes, regardless of what redemption may or may not come next after death.
On separate occasions, both John Ford and Ingmar Bergman said the most interesting subject for a movie camera is a human face, and indeed, presaging the later masterful work of those auteurs, Dreyer shoots PASSION primarily in intense close-ups, both of Joan as well as those condemning her.
Unlike so many religious films, we aren’t shown a world inherently prone to the miraculous, no guarantees of redemption; there is no Divine admonition that Paradise awaits Joan on the other side of the pyre. Instead, we are given a laser-like emotional look at a woman confronting her imminent death, and, as a result, we witness her profoundly internal examination of what exactly she believes, something that inadvertently happens to all viewing this masterpiece; Joan’s internal search becomes ours, and, again unlike most religious movies, makes us examine what may await us when we enter Hamlet’s undiscovered country. We can easily identify with the Maid’s tears when she is questioned about the Lord’s Prayer; she weeps not over the sublime words, but because her mother was the one who taught them to her.
Film is seductive because it’s dangerous; it can reveal things we’d otherwise ignore, regardless of which side of the camera we’re on. Until the 1950s, it was also dangerous for a far more literal reason – the nitrate film stocks generally used were highly flammable. Fires in labs, editing rooms and projection rooms were not uncommon; an industry-wide switch to celluloid acetate (aka “safety film”) corrected this in the 50s, but the damage had already been done to many cinematic treasures already lost either to the poor shelf life of the nitrate stocks or to fire. THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is a notorious example: the original negative was lost to a fire the year of its release .
Dreyer cut a secondary version of the movie from alternative takes, which also was lost to fire, in 1929. Dreyer’s original cut was presumed lost, until a print of the original version was found intact in, of all places, a Norwegian mental institution in the 1980s.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper