A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)

Renée Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc
Music has been an integral part of the cinematic experience since the days before sound, when the small-town exhibitor would hire a local pianist to play "Hearts and Flowers" to sweeten the love scenes. So it was a surprise to watch The Passion of Joan of Arc with no soundtrack at all on the new streaming service Filmstruck,* which has pulled the great Criterion Collection of classic films away from its old home on Hulu. I have seen The Passion before, and I'm certain that it had a music track then -- almost all restorations of silent films have some kind of music, typically a pastiche of themes from classical music. Over the years, since its rediscovery, there have been many attempts to add a music track to The Passion, including a pastiche of music by Baroque composers like Bach and Vivaldi that Dreyer heard and disliked. I notice on the Criterion site that the disc set includes an oratorio, "Voices of Light" by Richard Einhorn, that was inspired by the film, but it apparently wasn't approved for the streaming version. And after all that, I'm glad it wasn't. The Passion shines forth in silence, allowing you to reflect on the spareness of its images and the astonishing performance by Renée Falconetti as Joan. We don't need underscoring for Joan's emotions: They are present on Falconetti's face and in her extraordinarily expressive eyes. Dreyer's celebrated use of closeups throughout the film is varied with remarkable compositions of figures in groups that always feel organic, not something imposed by the director, and when the film erupts in violence as the soldiers attack the crowd at the film's end, the irruption of action is startling. The cinematographer was Rudolph Maté, who later turned director, and his low-angle camerawork -- Dreyer reportedly had holes dug in the floor of the set to get the angles he wanted -- anticipates that of Yasujiro Ozu, giving us a sense on the one hand of Joan as floating above us and on the other of her judges as looming menace. The final shots of Joan's slumped, burned body seen through the smoke and flames are harrowing and poignant without being grisly. There aren't many greater films than this one.

*So far, Filmstruck hasn't moved much beyond streaming on the computer, though it's supposed to be included on Roku early next year. In my household, with two others competing for bandwidth, this meant that I had frequent interruptions as the film refreshed itself. Oddly enough, I didn't mind as much as I usually would, because Dreyer's images are so compelling that I was content to pause and study them.