“Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.”
‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1928, is a silent movie that depicts the trial and execution of the French saint. This is the second version of the story I’ve seen, after Robert Bresson’s 1962 ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’, but where Bresson’s movie gained its power from being compact and emotionally reserved, Dreyer manages to get inside the psychology of his characters, all without dialogue or sound. Dreyer’s skill is in his camera work and his framing, as well as his (apparently brutal) ability to get real emotions from his actors. The undoubted highlight of this film is the performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan. Much of the film is focussed only on her face, her eyes and on her reactions to events. Dreyer eschews makeup or any other device that might obscure the real person and, like Joan herself, Falconetti is stripped of her femininity and, ultimately, her humanity. For all his simple and unflinching focus on the raw faces of his characters, however, Dreyer is also staggeringly modern and inventive with his film. His camera sweeps, swirls and flinches around the brutalist sets, at times depicting Joan’s muzzy point of view with such success that, despite the alienating age of the film, means that you’re completely immersed in the performance. To get these shots, Dreyer turned his sets into a box of tricks with pits and moveable walls, and this demonstrates his precision of preparation and his unrelenting vision. It’s a film where all the elements, most notable Dreyer’s sense of space and movement and Falconetti ability to present contradictory emotions with one facial expression come together perfectly.
Would I recommend it? It’s one of the greatest movies ever made – so yes. You should obviously watch it in a double bill with Bresson’s ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’, but when I watched it Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ also struck me as an interesting comparison.