Directed by a master in Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc features one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema (and that is not something that I say lightly). I’ve seen the lead credited as Maria Falconetti and Renee Falconetti, I don’t know which is her actual name (ah, the beauty of the silent era, when you could just make up your name, place of origin and background. It was kind of like professional wrestling but with fewer chair smashes over the head). This was only her second film, although before and after the movie she was an accomplished stage actress. This was also her last film. The process of making the movie was so draining that she never made another movie ever again. Dreyer achieved as much emotional resonance as possible by using long close-ups of the actors’ faces and not using any makeup. This approach works, as Falconetti is heartbreaking as Joan, giving one of the most moving performances captured on film. Dreyer also manages to get very good performances from the rest of the cast as well.
I don’t know much about material culture during that era, so I cannot speak to how realistic the costuming is, but I can say that it avoids some of the obvious ludicrousness often associated with period pieces. A stickler for verisimilitude, Dreyer based his script on the actual court documents of the trial, but the audience is meant to identify with the beleaguered Joan and not the English who would put her to death (who says that the winners always write history?). It is presented as a passion play, which isn’t altogether surprising considering the title. The movie focuses on Joan’s trial, her tortures, and her ultimate martyrdom, and one feels for her throughout the film.
I can understand why it was tough on the actors. In a field that traditionally coddles the on-film talent, Dreyer was apparently a rather punishing director and even the process of watching the movie can be a little tiring, but in a good way. This was a particularly difficult year for me, because Charlie Chaplin is my favorite actor and The Circus is my favorite of his movies. I have heard the argument that he has had better films, but for my money, this is his funniest movie. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is my favorite Buster Keaton movie and he is another one of my favorite comedic actors. I am as happy-go-lucky as anyone I know and am tempted to recommend one of these great comedies, but the emotional resonance of The Passion of Joan of Arc really cannot denied is just crying out to be viewed and loved by more people and I encourage you to go out and rent it. It is a difficult film, but it is well worth the effort.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1928 worth seeing):
As I said in the description above, I think that The Circus is the funniest Charlie Chaplin movie. It features the Tramp finding his way into a circus, causing mayhem by accident, and falling for the ringmaster’s daughter. It’s a wonderful film. Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. is well worth a watch and features one of his most dangerous and mind-numbingly awesome stunts (and all he had to do was stand still). This year saw one of the earliest appearances of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, which also featured synchronized sound. Conrad Veidt is tragic and moving in The Man Who Laughs. Lon Chaney gives a characteristically amazing (and kind of creepy, since he’s in love with his adopted daughter) performance in Laugh, Clown, Laugh opposite a very young Loretta Young. He runs the emotional gamut in the movie from happiness to despair and it speaks to his talents that it doesn’t seem all that creepy while you’re watching it. I don’t normally make a habit of highlighting movies I’ve never seen, but King Vidor’s The Crowd is, apparently, an amazing movie that has never been released on DVD and I would love to see it.
Did you know? (1928 Trivial knowledge)
“Laugh, clown, laugh, even though your heart is breaking.” Flok (the clown) speaking to Flik (the other clown) in Laugh, Clown, Laugh when he realizes his adopted daughter doesn’t want to marry him.
Which Version did I watch?
The Criterion Collection edition