Ryan and I would like to once again welcome you to another review for our Argumentative August Blogathon.
This next film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is being reviewed by SG of Rhyme and Reason
Let’s see what SG thought of this movie….
Undeterred by voices heard
By quiet, cautious captive Joan,
Rival judges bearing grudges
Fret and threaten from their throne.
Each complaint against the saint
Is useless as they menace harder.
Self-control and strength of soul
Prevail to mark her as a martyr.
Rating: Not Rated (could be PG-13, mainly for the end)
As the oldest film for this Argumentative August blogathon, The Passion of Joan of Arc takes some effort to watch. I haven’t seen many silent films, but the film’s lack of sound or Chaplinesque antics made it somewhat of a chore to sit through. Considering that silent films often rely on action to move their plots forward, it was surprising to watch a question-and-answer-filled trial so reliant on the dialogue cards and the actors’ facial expressions. The film had plenty of the latter but might have benefited from more of the former.
Indeed, director Carl Theodor Dreiser must have viewed the human face as art, since there is such a focus on close-ups to capture every minuscule change of countenance. Renee Maria Falconetti as the captive Joan of Arc has earned universal acclaim for her soulful expressions aimed directly into the camera lens. While she often has what could be considered “crazy eyes” (something I usually associate with dated overacting), her performance improves over time as she effortlessly turns on the tears and epitomizes the conflicted, exhausted fear of a woman destined for martyrdom. As her trollish jury of executioners challenges her with leading questions, silencing all objections, the parallels between her trial and the passion of Jesus grow stronger. At last, she ends up crowned and mocked, clarifying the wording of the title, and though her path to the stake doesn’t fit my exact expectations, her courage and convictions are admirable to the last.
Considering the time of the film’s creation, its artistry and technique are impressive. In addition to the close-ups, precursors to today’s famed tracking shots ease down the line of judges to emphasize the stony faces set against the heroine. In lieu of comedic tomfoolery to hold the audience’s attention, all manner of camera angles are employed for visual interest, from uncentered shots that keep certain faces in corners, low and high shots to alter perspective, an unprecedented overhead shot in which the camera rolls right-side up from a bat-like vantage point, and even a shot from underfoot. While it may have seemed like a waste at the time, the realism of the setting is aided by using the castle courtyard at the end as merely a practical background, even though it was reportedly the most expensive set built in Europe up to that time.
It’s amazing how we so often take for granted elements like color and music, for their absence was deeply felt here. Certain drawn-out scenes of interrogation even threatened to leave me nodding off. Yet the climax of the film, which everyone knowledgeable about the story will see coming, is surprisingly intense in depicting piety and sacrifice with potent imagery. (Though the climax is rather fierce, the only censorable content is a brief scene of breastfeeding at the end. Even so, England banned the film, and many in France voiced objections.)
I’m certainly glad that the original film still survives; it was thought lost for years after some fires but was rediscovered in a closet in a Norwegian mental hospital. (What are the chances?) Even so, while I can understand its status as a classic of the silent era, it’s a film to be appreciated, not enjoyed. For those interested in pious cinema and silent film history, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a must-see; for ordinary filmgoers, it’s a one-time viewing of interest just to say you’ve seen a classic.
Rank: Honorable Mention
© 2015 S. G. Liput