Sometimes I sit down and watch a film with some preconceived notions of what will entertain me. I had watched the first twenty-odd minutes of The Passion of Joan of Arc several months ago, before I started working through the films on the Sight and Sound list, and I cannot say that I was really looking forward to sitting through the remaining ninety minutes. I was wrong. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc may be the finest film on this list. Sight and Sound have it in ninth place, and it deserves to be higher.
Those first twenty minutes absolutely drip with the melodrama you may have come to expect from the silent era. It’s filled with men over-acting in an attempt to convey their character’s interest. This is how films were (and still are, in some sad cases). As the early parts of Joan’s trial ramp up, the raw emotion that you see in Renee Jeanne Falconetti, playing the title role, fully engulfs you into the moment. It is rare for me to wish I was able to literally enter a movie to start punching people, but this one sure did it.
My first thoughts when preparing to watch the remainder of the film were of the Milla Jovovich film from the late ‘90s, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. I haven’t seen the film but somehow I expected The Passion be an action-packed, as much as possible in the ‘20s, thrill ride through the life of the crusader. Again, I was wrong.
Dreyer filmed the transcripts of the trial, imprisonment, and following revolution surrounding the end of Jeanne’s life (Jeanne being Joan’s actual name). I assume that the time of its release worked in its favor; some of the various torture scenes as well as the ending would likely have been heavily censored had the film been made after the industry started to mature. My emotions flared right alongside Falconetti’s performance; it is a thing of magic.
The film’s climax was a marvel of special effects. Sure, it looks aged today, but if you are watching the film or have any experience with the silent era, it is easy to recognize how monumental these scenes are for the future of film, from a technical standpoint alone. I have only watched a handful of the old silent films, but nothing really matches what I witnessed with The Passion of Joan of Arc.