Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) - #62

A film like Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc is the kind that, were I to allow it, would delay or derail my efforts to write a review of each Criterion film in order of release, or even grind the whole project to a halt. It's a work of such power, such magnificence and such historical importance that I can't help but feel a bit intimidated by the responsibility to do it justice. As with King of Kings, I did write an earlier blog entry about this film, years ago, so here it is for you to catch up with.

But let's get the basics out of the way. It's a silent film from 1928 that was considered lost in its original form and survived only in cobbled-together versions that nevertheless hinted at greatness. Then, in the 1980s, a miraculously intact and well-preserved copy of the film was found in the closet of a Norwegian mental institution and restored to the version that has now established itself as a benchmark of world cinema and the object of intense admiration from critics and film-lovers around the world. It's not at all uncommon to see this film listed as a All-Time Top Ten by cinephiles of all sorts and even those who may not rank it that high will utter words of deep reverence for the striking camera work and especially the riveting performance by Renee Falconetti in the lead role as Jeanne d'Arc. So yes, this movie is a total established classic. However, it's not a costume drama, nor is it really all that concerned with Jeanne's historical context. A set was built (a large one, apparently) and costumes are provided, but all we really see. after a very brief opening shot of an ancient manuscript flopped open on a table, is a trial, an interrogation, an imprisonment and an execution with attendant mob scene. Basically, a depiction of the last hours of the life of Joan of Arc.

And while the script is based on exact quotes lifted from the carefully recorded transcripts of the proceedings, the quotes are selective and highly compressed. A process that stretched across week is compressed to give the impression that Joan was marched in front of an ecclesiastical panel, faced the questions of high church officials who found her answers problematic and unacceptable, and put to death all within the space of a fateful few hours. I have no quibbles at all with the film's departure from strict historicity - this viewing experience is all about the dramatic anguish and psychological poignancy of the individual soul under intense, unbearable pressure. Joan's story just provides a famous and popularly appealing vehicle in which to cast that drama.

Some familiarity with the basics of her history helps one understand what's going on. Joan of Arc rose to prominence as a teenage girl who heeded God's voice (which she audibly heard) and rallied the French people to resist the English invasion of her native land. The English had their own claims to the land, I suppose (I'm really pretty spotty on this history myself) but Joan was able to appeal directly to the exiled French king and also showed military prowess in battle. Hence her habit was to dress as a man, and it seemed that this very bold, unconventional claim of authority as a woman drew the wrath of the church, especially that faction that was more accommodating to the English presence in France. Hence the study in contrasts:
  • Joan the pious teenage girl surrounded by angry old men.
  • Joan the native mystic from the countryside opposed by learned theologians of the church.
  • Joan who dressed in a man's simple garb in a room full of men wearing elaborate gowns, capes, robes and fineries.
  • Joan whose answers spring from her heart, driven by zeal, interrogated by cunning lawyers who know how to frame their words and implicate witnesses through calculated misdirection.
  • Joan the heretic who would later go on to canonization (just a few years before the film premiered) vs. the orthodox authorities who would eventually be regarded even within their own church as tyrannical fools of the cruelest sort.
In order to even tolerate the film, much less enjoy and get swept up in it, the viewer must have some patience and preferably appreciation for the art of the "close-up." I haven't yet seen this film on a big screen, but I figure it must be nearly overwhelming to see the continual unfolding of profound facial expressions when each image is blown to its originally-intended cinematic dimensions. It's quite powerful just watching it on a standard 27" TV or even my computer monitor. Not just Joan's visage, but the faces of her inquisitors - all of them free of make-up, fully revealed in their raw, wrought, pock-marked expressive nakedness according to Dreyer's intentions. The liner notes in my DVD indicate that his intent was to what he wanted, what he felt, what he thought: realized mysticism. I think he succeeded in capturing at least one aspect of the mystical experience, the profound sense of release and letting go that accompanies that experience - Joan is given numerous opportunities to recant her visions and the other utterances which she previously made with such boldness and certainty... and under threat of torture, she actually does. Only to retract that confession a short while later, an act that she knows will lead her straight to the stake where she will be burned alive until dead.

And all along, we see a soul wrestling with the value it places upon truth, upon personal integrity, upon the willingness to refrain from lashing out or fighting back, not because one is outnumbered or facing hopeless odds of escape, but because the worldly powers themselves are so implacable in its determination to vanquish all that is noblest and purest within us that resistance to them ultimately does seem futile.

Carl Th. Dreyer
also has the distinction of being the earliest auteur to earn a repeat invitation back into the Criterion Collection. Flaherty, Christensen, Micheaux and of course DeMille all rank worthy of their place in film history, but Dreyer's work here is the earliest example of the kind of director who would go on to produce a whole string of art-house masterworks. I have quite a bit yet to learn about this leading figure of 20th century Danish culture, but I'll have opportunities in the months ahead to study him some more. For now, I suppose it's just sufficient to say I'm a novice cineaste who's impressed to the utmost with the timeless strength and originality of what Dreyer achieved when he was not yet forty years old. There are greater films to be found in terms of sheer spectacle and sweep of vision, but few peer this deep or intently into the heart of individual anguish. Such a pleasant subject to consider, right? Well there is a peculiar and enthralling beauty to be found in this film. It's one I expect to watch many more times in years to come.

This link will connect you to a full length film clip on YouTube, completely silent and without English intertitles. Don't let that bug you - the faces tell the story clearly enough and I only link you there as a sampler to know better that of which I speak. Shorter clips and "adaptations" are just as easily available on YouTube. Here's one of a suitable length that you can sample right here:

Of course, the "epic" symphonic rock soundtrack has nothing to do with the film. Dreyer intended it to be viewed as a truly silent movie even though its had numerous musical accompaniment tracks attached to it over the years. The choral/orchestral work Voices of Light that Criterion chose to put on the DVD provides a stirring and sensitive musical masterpiece quite worthy of the film to which it's been paired. Its composition was inspired by the film but not created as a specific score. Still, a very nice libretto is included in the package citing the literary references for the various theological sources that provide the lyrics. Other than biblical passages, I think all the other words sung (in ancient languages, with English translations provided in the booklet) were from Joan herself or other female mystics of her era.

So there you go, folks. The Passion of Joan of Arc - a most humbling and monumental work of the filmmaker's art.

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