Starring: Renée Jeanne Falconetti, Eugène Silvain, André Berley
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Running Time: 82 mins
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’arc) is a French film about the true story of the trial of Joan of Arc, as she is berated and threatened by her jurors who try to make her renounce her claims of being sent by God to lead France to victory over England.
This film is a piece of cinematic legend, featuring some of the most iconic and groundbreaking images in all of movie history. But it’s so much more than just an artefact, as, thanks to exceptional directing and acting, the film is powerfully intense at every moment, and provides a gritty, heavy-going but utterly enthralling depiction of the history of the trial of Joan of Arc.
Let’s start with what the film is often best known for, the central performance. Without a doubt, Falconetti is incredible in the central role here, brilliantly portraying Joan of Arc’s intense distress and emotional turmoil as she finds herself faced with days of men attacking her faith and threatening her with death. The performance may still seem a little hyperbolic to our modern eyes, but as the film goes on and the intensity grows, you do begin to realise that there’s so much going on with the character, and Falconetti portrays every single piece of it brilliantly.
Of course, Falconetti’s performance is one of many things about The Passion Of Joan Of Arc that are steeped in legend. It’s said that, on the film’s cold and glib set, she was repeatedly forced to act in incredibly uncomfortable conditions as director Carl Theodor Dreyer kept reshooting some amazingly harsh sequences. Some say that’s not true, but it’s certainly plausible given the exceptional levels of emotional distress that Falconetti shows on screen.
Then we come to the director himself. On the whole, this film is shot exceptionally well, with stunningly dynamic use of camera angles and editing to create the legendary intensity. Also, various unorthodox decisions made by Dreyer, such as filming actors with no make-up to increase the grittiness of the visuals, and shooting the entire film against an almost sheet white concrete set, which gives the ingenious effect of both the horror of Joan of Arc’s imprisonment as well as some fascinating religious overtones, are amazing to see, and it shows that, even though silent film may not always be the most exhilarating for us to watch nowadays, innovative directing like this can make it just as captivating as any modern movie.
The original film that was released in 1928 was allegedly 110 minutes long, but this restored version, made from a print found in the 1980s in a Norwegian mental institution, is about half an hour shorter. However, the plot isn’t the thing that makes this such an enthralling watch, because of Falconetti’s incredible performance and Dreyer’s fantastic directing.
Another effect of the original being lost is that there is no original score. However, on the Criterion Collection’s restored version, modern music is used, as it’s something that’s absolutely vital in silent cinema, and particularly in this film. That music was composed by Richard Einhorn in 1994, and was inspired by The Passion Of Joan Of Arc.
Simply put, Einhorn’s music is astonishing. Alongside the innovative and legendary directing and performance from the original film, the use of Einhorn’s modern music is incredibly powerful. Blending intense modern tunes with medieval hymns and chants, the film gains an extra level of pulsating and restless drama, as we see Joan of Arc being put through hell, all accompanied by some mind-blowing music. However, the use of medieval music alongside the more modern sound gives the film a powerfully haunting and lonely atmosphere as well, reinforcing her struggle tenfold, which was instrumental in making the film so exhilarating to watch for me. If you can, I strongly recommend you watch the Criterion Collection’s version with Einhorn’s score.
Overall, as an absolute legend of cinema history, and featuring some amazingly intense directing, beautiful and exhilarating music, and a legendarily distressing and emotionally potent performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc is an absolutely thrilling watch from start to finish, which is why I’m giving it an 8.2.