There are some films that transcend their genre, that are so exquisitely realized, that so precisely capture the essence of what it means to be human, good and bad, that they take their place in the pantheon of great art, not just great art films. Such is Carl Theodore Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, a film made in 1928, but that is as immediate and as modern today as it was then.
The story is the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, condensed into the events of one day as Joan suffers the torments inherent in the betrayal of men and the favor of God. As with all great works of art, the effect is visceral, the intellectual distinctions, such as the damning picture of fanaticism and doctrinal fascism, becoming apparent on the later reflection that such works engender. In an artistic decision that is startling even today for its daring, its originality and its effectiveness, the film is told almost entirely in close-ups, eschewing the expensive sets created for the film (much to the chagrin of the film's producers). Meyer was unflinching in his belief that the human face can express as much if not more than any other image and his work in this film using that concept is unmatched to this day. There is nothing to detract or distract from the pure play of emotions on a face from whose eyes shine a preternaturally divine light. Maria Falconetti’s performance glows with a faith that seems like madness to the mere mortals around her. Or perhaps her Joan is experiencing the madness inevitable when mortals are touched by the divine.
The point of view is as important as the close-ups themselves. The judges are seen from Joan's point of view, forbidding when sincere, even more frightening when muddle-headed, but the shots of Joan seem to be a God's eye view. The effect is subtle, but emphasizes Joan's aloneness with her God, the rapture that it has engendered and, finally, the truth of the deliverance that God through St. Michael has promised her.
The superb commentary track on the Criterion Collection DVD is a worthy companion to the film, explaining the history of the film, including Meyer’s artistic vision that had its own claim to madness as well as the censorship the film suffered when first released. And then there is the score, Richard Einborn’s “Voices of Light” written expressly for the film more than half a century after its production. Meyer himself wanted his film shown without a score of any kind, believing that silence was the most profound accompaniment possible. Einborn’s score, though, is profound with its judicious use of silence as part of the eerie take on traditional sacred music. A choral work with insistent power equal to the film’s, its blend of medieval writings, mostly female mystics, is so finely calibrated to the emotions on screen that it is more than an accompaniment; it is an integral part of the experience. The DVD does this work justice with an audio essay by Einhorn.
The title invites us to draw parallels with the passion of Jesus, both prophets surrounded by those who could not understand their message, even those sympathetic ultimately stumped by the single-minded purpose, even those who considered themselves righteous proving intolerant in the face of an unknowable mystery. THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is like a thunderclap, blazing in its intensity, and overwhelming in its poetry.