7 February 2004 | MisterWhiplash
an incredible directorial vision, and a devastating lead in Falconetti, make this one of the greatest achievements in all celluloid
Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc was made, perhaps, years ahead of its time- my guess would be that if it wasn't burned after its initial release, it would've had as stunning an impact on the film world years down the line as Citizen Kane did. Though the use of close-ups and distorted angles were not completely new in this film, it felt like Dreyer was creating a new kind of cinema, one where reality, however cold and pitiful, was displayed with complete sincerity. There is also the editing (by Dreyer and Marguerite Beague), which has the timing that many directors/editors of the modern day could only hope to achieve (it has the influence of Eisenstein, only in a totally different historical context), and those moves with the camera by Rudolph Mate (who would go on to photograph Foreign Correspondent and Lady from Shanghai) that are precious- to call his work on the film extraordinary is an understatement.
And it was crucial for Dreyer to use the close-ups and tilted angles and shots where you only see the eyes in the bottom of the frame, and so forth- he's developing the perfect atmosphere in regards to a trial set in 15th century France. It's all those eyes, all those faces, holding all those stolid mindsets that send Joan to her fate. Pretty soon a viewer feels these presences from all these people, so strong and uncompromising, and Dreyer does a miraculous thing- he makes it so that we forget about the time and place, and all of our attention is thrown onto those eyes of Joan, loaded to brim with a sorrow for where she is, but an un-questionable faith in what she feels about God. I wondered at one point whether Dreyer was making as much a point on people's faiths and prejudices in the almighty, or just one on basic humanity.
There have been many before me who have praised Falconetti's performance to the heavens (Kael called it the finest performance in film), but in a way it almost can't be praised enough. What she achieves here is what Ebert must've felt watching Theron in the recent 'Monster'. I didn't even see her in a performance as Joan of Arc- I saw her as being the embodiment of it, as if Falconetti (with Dreyer's guidance) took Joan out of the pages of the trial transcript and her entire soul took over. There is something in an actor that has to be so compelling, so startling, and indeed so recognizable, that a person can feel empathy and/or sympathy for the person the actor's playing. All a viewer has to do is stare into Falconetti's eyes in any shot, close-up or not, and that viewer may get stirred to boiled-down emotion.
For me, it was almost TOO over-whelming an emotional experience- when Joan is about to get tortured, for example, I found myself completely lost from where I was watching the film, everything in my soul and being was with Joan in that chamber, and for a minute I broke out in tears. That's the kind of effect that Dreyer's craft and all the acting work (including Eugene Sylvain as the Bishop Cauchon, and of course Artaud as Jean) can have on a viewer. I'm not saying it has to, yet The Passion of Joan of Arc could- and should- be considered a milestone in cinematic tragedy, where the images that come streaming forth never leave a viewer, and the detail for time and place becomes just that, a detail for the main stage. Love Joan or hate her, this is for keeps.