Monday, March 2, 2009
The Great Movies: "The Passion of Joan of Arc"
[but first... who was it that told me I should watch Judgement at Nuremburg? 'Cause I did. And it was great.]
[UPDATE: It was Chance, whose review is here. I concur with his very positive assessment. If it were up to me, Judgement at Nuremburg would move directly to the Great Movies list, and it would be, all, "Sayonara, Persona!"]
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928
The Passion of Joan of Arc, it turns out, takes us back once again to the era of the silents. This brings up a point about the Great Movies Project: The Great Movies list isn’t really as concentrated on really old movies as you would think from my coverage to date. You see, so far I’ve been going through the list watching only the movies I’ve never seen before. Eventually , I’ll get to the end of the alphabet – behold, we’re already in the P’s! – after which, I’ll be going back and rewatching the ones I have seen before, most of which are post-1970. I imagine this will seem a lot more interesting for a lot of you.
Anyway. Subject to all my usual reservations about silent movies (last discussed in Pandora’s Box), I have to say that Passion is a pretty effective piece of filmcraft. It may help that a massive symphonic choral piece (Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light”) has been composed to accompany the film, which remedies its silence into a kind of rock-music-video type of multimedia experience. But even without this crutch, the movie is beautifully and artfully made, full of memorable images and extraordinary acting.
The Plot: A group of middle-aged men browbeat, then physically abuse, then publicly torture to death a teenage girl who is, take your pick, either profoundly mentally ill or in the grips of religious ecstasy. Either way, the learned fathers of the church (a select group of French clerics in collaboration with the occupying English forces, actually) do not come off in a particularly flattering light. The parallels to the passion of Jesus Christ, highlighted in the title, are in evidence everywhere in the film
Visuals: The sets are both simple and slightly surreal, providing a blank architectural backdrop with odd angles and doors and windows set at strange angles. Against this featureless and disorienting background, the camera is focused tightly on faces – Joan’s, alternatively blissed out and freaked out, and her tormentors’, bristling with anger, contempt, cruelty, uncertainty, and occasionally boredom. Each of the characters manages to imply a full human personality behind their one-dimensional role in this particular event. The costuming is exquisite, and stands out beautifully against the blankness of the background. As a warning: the scene where Joan is tied to a post and burned to death – you did know how this story ends, right? – is not prettied up at all, and indeed is surprisingly graphic.
Dialogue: There are lots of dialogue cards in Passion, most taken from the actual transcript of the trial. Dreyer was smart enough to realize that you can’t build a courtroom drama out of dialogue in a silent movie, so he pulls a very clever trick. He includes numerous conversations, including arguments among the judges and the mockery of Joan by her guards, in which he just shows us the emotional exchange of words without telling us what’s being said. It works really well, because we can figure out the gist of the conversation from context; the strong acting helps here too. Similarly, Joan’s carefully mouthed answers of “oui” and “non” can be lip-read easily enough without the need for a title card to interrupt things.
Prognosis: If you have any tolerance at all for silent film, this is a lovely one. Recommended for film history buffs, French history buffs, and the curious. To be viewed as an artwork rather than an entertainment, natch.