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The Passion of Joan of Arc
1928 - NR - 82 Mins.
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Producer: Jean Hugo
Written By: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Andre Berley, Maurice Schutz,
Review by: Charles Vuolo
In any art form the meagerest tools could in all logic be used to craft a masterpiece. The actual likelihood is small, yet it is the possibility not the probability that drives the creative thinker. Through Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer the potential for brilliance amidst simplicity was realized. Without elaborate sets and locals, devoid of sound, color or panoramic scope, Dreyer composed a masterpiece of international cinema. In the view of many critics, "The Passion of Joan of Arc" quite ably matches (if not overshadows) any film produced in terms of aesthetic, visual elegance, and sheer emotion. Filmed almost entirely in a sparse courtroom and crafted from nothing more than scowling faces and unblinking eyes, Dreyer put to shame the countless spectacle-films and historical epics of his day.

Released in 1928, the film vividly narrates the trial and execution of the French martyr, Joan of Arc. Having been captured by the enemy English, the once lauded "Savior of France" now stands in chains before a panel of judges. Claiming to have spoken with angels, Joan faces charges of heresy and, innocuously, of dressing in men’s clothing. The judges interrogate relentlessly, laying psychological traps and levying threats of excommunication, torture and death, all in the hopes of eliciting repentance and recantation from the terrified prisoner. The odds are severely tilted against Joan, and she appears nearly paralyzed against the barrage of questions and intimidations.

The legendary visuals, guided by cinematographer Rudolph Mate, capture the trial’s tension with unerring precision. Exceptionally framed and lit, the film’s rapid black and white close-ups depict Joan, an illiterate farmer’s daughter, pitted against her antagonizers, England's most revered religious experts and leaders. Though not violent in a traditional sense, the spiritual and emotional conflicts of the film exude medieval barbarity, and even those desensitized to the extremes of Hollywood violence will acknowledge the film's disconcerting portrayal of unclouded pain.

Overpowering even the photography, the performance of actress Maria Falconetti is, without doubt, the film's most forceful element. Playing the role of Joan, Falconetti is silent for much of the trial, yet her expressive reactions generate the film’s most gripping moments. To the unenlightened her portrayal might seem overwrought, analogous to the most extreme of Griffith's fantasies. The opposite is true, for rather than donning a facade of presupposed behavior, Falconetti’s performance expresses true human pathos. Her face is a mirror of tortured contemplation, not an obvious and artificial mask such as those worn by lesser artists. There is no contrived emoting or overwrought weeping, and the realities of her peril, conflict, and inner agonies are starkly displayed. For its sheer humanity and realism, Falconetti’s work deserves its place among the greatest onscreen performances in cinema.

Though silent, "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is a gaze into true conflict, and the stirring eyes of Falconetti pronounce more effectual meaning than a thousand lines of dialog. Reveling in minimalism while simultaneously achieving dramatic complexity, Dreyer’s masterpiece has been rightfully equated among the most influential and defining films in the history of cinema.

Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

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