Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film about the trial and execution of Joan of Arc is often cited as “one of the best films ever made” — something that too often means you’re about to get cinematic cauliflower (it’s good for you, but you may not much like it). Yet Dreyer’s film remains among the most strikingly unusual cinema you’re ever likely to see. And while it probably isn’t the greatest movie of all time, it most certainly is powerful filmmaking.
The Passion is more accessible than some of the Danish filmmaker’s work (I defy anyone to actually explain his horror picture, Vampyr), but it’s no less distinctively Dreyer. Whether that’s a good thing depends a lot on how you respond to Dreyer’s particular sense of cinema, which can be as austere as his strict Lutheran upbringing (and we all know what a barrel of laughs that made Ingmar Bergman), and which tends to move at what is called a “deliberate pace” (hint: think snails). The Passion is certainly austere, but it differs from the bulk of Dreyer’s work in that it’s much faster-paced (albeit hardly action-packed), and resultantly more accessible.
Yet it remains about as far from traditional filmmaking as can be imagined. Despite Dreyer’s having built elaborate sets for the film, his approach nonetheless favors a series of close-ups, via an endlessly roving camera. There are almost no long shots, and only a smattering of medium shots, giving the film a claustrophobic immediacy in perfect keeping with Dreyer’s approach to the material.
Just as there are no establishing shots, there is also no setup for the events unfolding on the screen. Dreyer assumes (perhaps less effectively today than in 1928) that the viewer already knows at least the basics of the story, and plunges straight into Joan’s trial for heresy. There is no recourse to flashbacks, and no attempts to create an epic with scenes of her military victories over the English; the film is nothing but her trial and execution.
How this works as drama depends on your take on the subject matter. On one hand, the film is very much a stacked-deck affair with Joan’s persecutors presented as a thoroughly corrupt and even grotesque lot, but there’s also another side here. It’s quite possible to take Joan at face value, as Dreyer presumably did — to embrace her belief in her religious visions and God’s strangely nationalistic approach to France. However, it’s equally possible to read Joan — especially as played by the legendary Renee Maria Falconetti — as delusional in the extreme. There’s no doubt that she believes her story, but the viewer is left to make up his or her own mind on that score.
The question of whether she was deliberately destroyed by corrupt churchmen and unprincipled politics, though, is not open to question — and both these things are what give the film its sense of being such a strikingly modern work all these years later. Mesmerizing and powerful (in a way a more recent Passion can never hope to be), The Passion of Joan of Arc is a masterpiece of filmmaking.
[The Passion of Joan of Arc will be shown at 9 p.m. Thursday, July 14 at the Asheville Community Resource Center, 16 Carolina Lane, downtown, as part of the ACRC’s “Movie Night.” Donations to the ACRC will be accepted.]
— reviewed by Ken Hanke