Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer (Vampyr; Day of Wrath)
I was a fool to wander and astray
Straight is the gate and narrow the way
Now I have traded the wrong for the right
Praise the Lord, I saw the light.
-Hank Williams (the good one)
My long dark days of prejudice against the silent film are now over. I have seen the light. And no, I have absolutely know problem comparing this film to Biblical revelation; it is that good.
99% of the sound films that I have seen are boring and lifeless compared to this peerless work. More is told in one forlorn look into the camera, one sweep across a set of fat and fatuous judges, one hand woven crown here than in hundreds of pages of script across countless lesser works. The singularity theme is appropriate, for this film is singular in its brilliance.
Maria Falconetti is spellbinding as Joan, the pious and probably insane French girl whose faith and hartred of the occupying English drives her to martyrdom. The film is a courtroom drama of the most famous trial in the history of the Western world that did not involve Jesus, a trumped up charge of witchcraft to justify relieving the church of this bothersome claimant to divine grace. Even for a silent film, the focus on the nuance of the trial, the hypocricy of the questions, and the undetermined faith of the accused pays off in a fascinating examination of the way philsophical categories can be twisted into accusations against the unorthodox.
Dreyer wrings all of the proper lessons out of this historical moment. The conduct of the clergy is familiar and inexcusable, but we see it as only one moment in an enternity of wagon circling and self protection from those who supposedly represent truth and compassion. Politics, business, religion, the family, you name it, you can recognize what these particular priests are doing; protecting their own authority from the bold and popular challenger.
Mind you, all of the lessons are told visually. The text is minimal, after all. The film is shot almost entirely in close-up. The faces, especially the mercurial Falconetti, convey so much information. The restoration on the print (found in a Norwegian insance asylum after it was thought to be lost) is impeccable, the best looking silent film I have ever seen. Dreyer controls his camera so well, making sweeping shots and movements that seem decades ahead of his time. This is what silent film acting and directing should be; a supreme focus on conveying information with facial expression, gesture, and blocking. No one I have ever seen has understood this like Dreyer does in this film.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is a perfect storm of powerful material, deep and insightful writing, brilliant acting and visionary directing. It stands up to any film made today both technically and as entertainment. I really was thrilled by watching it. It was not silent films that I did not like, it was obsolete and dated filmmaking. Dreyer was ahead of his time, a virtuoso who has made an essential film. BME.