Of all the classical European directors, Carl Dreyer was the one most able to communicate his spiritual motivations in his movies, as already seen in the previous Criterion Collection review of Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud. His masterpiece of silent cinema, a film so lauded that its reputation distorts the simple experience of seeing it, is The Passion of Joan of Arc. The original version on this DVD is not the same movie we saw in film school in the 1970s. Literally.
We were shown The Passion of Joan of Arc frequently at UCLA, and told to pay special attention to Dreyer's constant, held closeups on the pitiable face of Falconetti. Her performance, we were repeatedly assured, was one of the best in film history. Okay... The movie was impressive, even in the blurry, overcropped 16mm prints we were shown. There was indeed a preponderance of closeups, but the film hadn't much rhythm to its cutting, and abounded with unexplained jump cuts. The continuity just blurred together; it was one unending interrogation, with half-explained cutaways to details. But who were we to question anything? Go to any book on silent European cinema, and the first example of unassailable cinema Art was La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc.
As it turns out, what we'd been watching all those years was a 2nd try, cobbled together by Carl Dreyer, after the entire original film had been destroyed in a fire. He had attempted to 'restore' the picture by assembling another version from outtakes and other unused pieces. No wonder it didn't play like a classic. In 1981, a practically unscreened print of the original cut was found in perfect condition in a Norwegian mental hospital. Apparently the Brothers who ran the place had contributed to Dreyer's budget when finances became tight, and as partial payment (the film was not hailed as a success on its first run), Dreyer had given them a print! Forgotten and blissfully untouched, the print resurfaced. In one stroke, it restored the glory of Dreyer's original vision.
And it is a vision. It's certainly not all closeups, although much of the picture is anchored firmly on Falconetti's drawn, tearful face. There are careful establishing shots, pans across the cells and the ramparts of Joan's castle prison. The continuity is reestablished, with Joan being brought out several times, refusing to confess, only to give in from utter exhaustion allows her to be deceived by her cruel inquisitors. All of the deadly sins are arrayed in the faces of her tormentors - they stare smugly at her with contemptuous malice, and mock her in any way they can to beat down her pride and faith.
Part of Dreyer's strategy is outlasting our resistance by sharing Joan's ordeal in closeup, and it is Falconetti's expressive face that slowly entrances us. She no longer seems like a great general or a spiritual firebrand, just a human being. She's broken, exhausted, starved, and mentally defeated - but there's this spark that keeps showing in her eyes as she makes gestures upward, continually pleading. Falconetti's Joan has often been compared to Christ on the cross, a vision of martyrdom. Dreyer takes pains to emphasize that she's just a young woman at the end of her rope and pushed to the limits of her senses. She's a human being whose will can be broken but whose faith - to him, a human essence - cannot be defeated.
Her tormentors are not shaken or humbled in the finale. Joan goes to her fate as alone as a human possibly can be, and it's an unrelieved horror. But what we remember is her uplifted, beatific face - Falconetti's transparent revelation of the inner spiritual light. Dreyer has given us a profound human experience. Many have described it as a religious experience.
Criterion's DVD of The Passion of Joan of Arc looks splendid. You see this fabulous, practically perfect print and just have to sigh. It's not immaculate; there are flaws here and there (perhaps Dreyer didn't send the monks a perfected copy), but it looks so good they won't be noticed. The original intertitles have removable subtitles in English, so we get to see the film exactly as screened in 1928.
Instead of the original score, the film is accompanied by a choral and orchestral composition by Richard Einhorn called Voices of Light that makes for a stirring soundtrack. Danish Dreyer expert Casper Tyberg provides a commentary on an alternate channel.
Archives include a large number of production designs, an interview with Hélene Falconetti, the actresses' daughter, and a history of film versions of the story with brief clips. Besides a booklet of his libretto to Voices of Light, the composer provides an essay on the relation of the score to the film, and figures in a short docu on the production of the music. There's enough here for a full appreciation; to really understand the amazing director Carl Dreyer, the feature-length docu in Criterion's Carl Dreyer Boxed Set is the way to go.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,