Review: The Passion of Joan of Arc
La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) (1928)
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, and Andre Berley
Directed By: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Written By: Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer
When people dislike a movie, usually the first thing they attack is the plot. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “it had no plot.” This is something that somewhat irritates me and not just for the questionable grammar (as if I know anything about that anyway). I always ask them if the movie started at one point and through a series of events finished at another. If the answer is yes, then there was a plot. There aren’t many films out there that are without a plot. Certainly, we all like an interesting plot line that weaves in and out, leaving us on the edge of our seats. However, sometimes the best movies are the ones with the most simple of stories. The Passion of Joan of Arc is such a film.
Simply put, The Passion of Joan of Arc shows the final hours of Joan of Arc (Falconetti), a 14 year old girl who believes she’s an instrument of God with the purpose to lead the French over their English enemies. More specifically, we see her trial at the hands of the English clergy and her eventual execution That’s about it. It doesn’t go into detail over the politics involved (the French aristocracy didn’t bother to pay the ransom for Joan for fear of her increasing popularity within the country). Instead, it focuses on the piousness of Joan, her unflinching (for the most part) faith, and her devious tribunal who try to trick Joan at every step along the way.
If everything is so simple, what makes this film so great? First and foremost, it’s the performance of Falconetti as Joan. She is simply spectacular. Her arc (not pun intended) is full of highs and lows, and we journey with her through each and every one of these emotions. Just when she seems defeated (such as when her head is shaved or when she’s mocked by the English jailers), Joan emerges with a new fortitude that surprises her judges. She is strong as she is innocent and naive. Mostly, she has this magnetism that we can’t look away from, especially when she’s full of faith (her eyes literally light up).
The rest of the cast is good, though I couldn’t tell you who was who, unfortunately. They all played their parts accordingly. While some do feel genuine sympathy for Joan, most are just beyond arrogant and sometimes downright cruel. The interesting part is that they do it without really overacting. There are definitely moments when they do go over the top, but for the most part they deliver lines (that we don’t hear, of course) as one normally would without being overly animated. This is a bit different from most silent films I’ve seen as it’s easy to use very big body movements to tell a story, rather than much of the subtlety seen here.
There are some very interesting filming techniques involved with the film, also. Dreyer uses closeups of the actors rather than long shots. This is how we see much of the little things in their performances can be seen. Another tidbit was that Dreyer forbid the actors to wear makeup as he believed it took away from seeing the emotion in their faces. There are many different camera angles that are just things you don’t see in movies nowadays (such as the camera filming upward while moving in a swinging motion in a neat shot). While there is no real torture shown (aside from what is believed to be a burning cadaver during Joan’s death), the scene showing a spiked wheel spinning is quite disturbing to see.
It would be very difficult to speak about The Passion of Joan of Arc without going over the obvious Christ analogy. Yes, this is a passion play and Joan is shown in place of Jesus. She is humiliated and tortured by clergy. She is shown in the equivalent of the crown of thorns. While she isn’t forced to walk with a giant cross her back, she does carry a large cross clutched to her chest as she goes to be burned at the stake. She willingly goes off to her death, knowing her martyrdom will make her more powerful than she was in life. The comparisons are intentional and obvious. Thankfully, it’s not as gruesome as some other films would later show.
Bottom Line: It should be apparent that Mel Gibson has seen this film. While the passion play has been performed for centuries, The Passion of Joan of Arc is the cinematic blueprint for Gibson’s later work in Braveheart (Wallace’s death) and The Passion of The Christ. It can be difficult to watch as there is absolutely no sound at all, not even accompanying music. Still, Joan of Arc is quite a feat for it’s time and once you get used to the tempo, it will suck you in. More importantly, it features an all-time great performance by Falconetti, which makes this a must see on it’s own.