Sight and Sound Top 250 – #009 The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927)

Continuing our voyage throught the most recent Sight and Sound Top 250 Movies of All Time list, this time around, it’s #9 on the list, Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. And as always I’ll just note that for those just joining us, you can find a full introduction to what the Sight and Sound Top 250 list is, and a look at the complete list of the movies on it, along with links to the ones I’ve already written about here. And, if you want to be sure not to miss any of these posts, just head on over to the Facebook page and give it a “like”or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I post anytime one of these – or anything else on the blog, along with just random other links and thoughts that may not make it into full posts – goes up. Trust me, if you’re not following one or the other (or both), you’re not getting the full Durmoose Movies experience.

ja0Well, this time out, I not only get to mark another movie off the Top 250 list, but also off of my own personal “I really should have seen this movie before now” list. Of course by now you’ve  figured out that I’m talking about Carl Theodore Dreyer’s silent 1928 classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (or, giving it it’s proper French title, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc).

Actually it’s a lucky thing that any of us are able to see the film at all, considering all of the troubles that beset the movie both before and after its production.

As soon as the production of Joan was announced, there were protests by French nationalists because of the director and because it had been rumored that Lillian Gish was to star as Joan. As Jean-Jose Frappa famously summed up these objections,

…whatever the talent of the director (and he has it)…he cannot give us a Joan of Arc in the true French tradition. And the American ‘star’…cannot be our Joan, wholesome, lively, shining with purity, faith, courage and patriotism. To let this be made in France would be a scandalous abdication of responsibility.

Then, before its premiere, the Archbishop of France and French censors ordered a number of cuts be made, demands to which the studio acceded, over the protests of Dreyer. Finally, the film had it’s public premiere in October of 1928.

ja1Then, in December of that year, the original negative of the film was destroyed in a fire, leaving only a few prints available, and most of those were heavily damaged. Fortunately Dreyer was able to piece together a new version made from alternate cuts of the film. This new version, however, was also destroyed in a lab fire in 1929.

In subsequent years, various recuts and editions were released, including a truly bastardized version which cut the film down to 61 minutes in 1933, and a 1951 recut by Joseph-Marie Lo Duca which became the prevailing print even though Dreyer objected to it.

ja2For years, it seemed as though there was no real chance that audiences would be able to see anything that truly resembled the director’s true vision for his film.

Then, in 1981, an employee of the Dikemark Mental Hospital  in Oslo, Norway, found several film canisters in a janitor’s closet that were labeled as being The Passion of Joan of Arc. These canisters were sent to the Norwegian Film Institute where they languished for three years before finally being further examined. When they finally were, it was discovered that they contained a copy of Dreyer’s original cut prior to government or church censorship.

These reels were finally restored, and in 1985, the closest thing to a definitive version was finally released to the public.

ja3As far as the film itself, there can be no doubt that Dreyer has created a true masterpiece, though it is a very unconventional one. The director for the most part eschews establishing shots and even the expected mid-range shots, instead spending most of the film giving us extreme close-ups which truly allow the emotions of the characters to come through. Also, through his decision not to allow the actors to wear make-up and to shoot them with mostly only the available light, he really does capture a sense of intensity which heightens not only the viewer’s empathy with Joan’s plight, but the furiousness that is brought by her interrogators.

Even when Dreyer does give us scenes of transition, such as when the action moves into the torture room, he chooses his shot in such a way that gives the room an unexpected starkness that serves only to heighten the viewer’s curiosity and the sense of dread which permeates the film.

ja4There are even times when the film seems to border on the abstract and the expressionist, such as the shots of the spiked spinning wheel which occur during the torture scene.

There’s also really no way to overstate the perfection of the performance which star Renée Jeanne Falconetti brings to the film in the title role of Joan. At the same time embodying the hopefulness of the martyr in her belief that God will save her with an equal sense of the hopelessness of her plight, Falconetti is tragic in a way that I dare say no one has or will ever be on film again.

ja6Kudos also have to be given to the various actors who make up the court. Again, since so much of the film is made up of extreme close-ups of their faces, they have to use those faces to embody an extreme range of emotions without being able to resort to other tricks and tics of body language to do so.

All in all, The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of those transcendent films which truly shows what a skilled and passionate (no pun intended) film maker can create despite the enormous amount of interference from all quarters the Dreyer was faced with, and it’s a film that seems, much like Joan herself, something of a miracle that we are able to see today.

Here’s a trailer that was obviously made for a theatrical showing of the new restoration:

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