The Passion of Joan of Arc

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My short review published online in One Hundred Words Magazine [no longer available]:-

Amongst the many gems on offer in the BFI Southbank’s complete retrospective of the films of master Danish director Carl Dreyer is this silent masterpiece.

The Passion of Joan of Arc portrays the final days of the tragic and deluded heroine. It is a film of heartbreaking intensity: an unflinching portrayal of personal suffering. The unusual and powerfully effective editing and framing are surprisingly experimental even for a modern audience. What dominates everything, though, is the film’s intense scrutiny of human faces in close-up, especially the achingly sad gaze of Joan herself.

This is an extraordinary, unforgettable work of art.

In their guide to the Dreyer season at the Southbank, Silent London describe the brilliance of this film:-

Dreyer summarised his harrowing, cathartic dramatisation of the trial of Joan of Arc as, ‘a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life’. It’s a genuine masterpiece, one of the greatest, and most emotionally powerful films ever made. The hectic edits and swirling camera movements will dazzle you, but Falconetti’s performance in the title role will quietly astonish you. A film to be treasured, but more importantly to be watched on the big screen as often as possible.

Steve Rose in The Guardian on Falconetti’s performance:-

Maria Falconetti’s portrayal of Joan is somehow in a class of its own, outside the realms of acting. Just her agonised expression is enough to move viewers to tears – no words or actions are needed. Quite how Falconetti and Dreyer achieved this is a mystery, but it is still often regarded as the single greatest performance in the history of cinema.

Roger Ebert perfectly captures this aspect:-

You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti. In a medium without words, where the filmmakers believed that the camera captured the essence of characters through their faces, to see Falconetti in Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) is to look into eyes that will never leave you.

For Falconetti, the performance was an ordeal. Legends from the set tell of Dreyer forcing her to kneel painfully on stone and then wipe all expression from her face–so that the viewer would read suppressed or inner pain. He filmed the same shots again and again, hoping that in the editing room he could find exactly the right nuance in her facial expression… Perhaps it helps that Falconetti never made another movie (she died in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1946). We do not have her face in other roles to compare with her face here, and the movie seems to exist outside time (the French director Jean Cocteau famously said it played like “an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist”).

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