I wrote about Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) a little over three years ago for a special showing presented by the now defunct Asheville Community Resource Center. Seeing the film again—with Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light oratorio/opera, which was inspired by the film, as accompaniment—I’m struck by what a very modern work this 80-year-old museum piece is. I still find it a film I more admire than actually like, but I’d never dispute its greatness or its amazing freshness.
What might have been an epic—and Dreyer had the sets for such, he just didn’t use them—is instead an intimate human and occasionally inhuman drama that concerns itself only with the trial and execution of Joan of Arc (Maria Falconetti). Any grandeur that surrounds this event lies in the faces of the film’s characters and in the undeniable majesty of Dreyer’s use of the camera. For a film made up almost completely of close-ups, The Passion is astonishingly fluid. Dreyer’s camera is rarely still, but this never seems arbitrary. Rather it underscores the film’s attempts to understand what’s going on. The inability to settle seems to reflect both Dreyer’s probing and Joan’s own inability to grasp the why of it all. It’s brilliant and extremely unsettling—and unlike anything else in the history of film.