t h e p a s s i o n o f a r c
Carl Theodore Dryer
20th March 2013
So I come to the final of my half of the BFI Top 10. Unless my despatching 2001: A Space Odyssey to the other half of Broken Shark comes back to haunt me in the form of Sunrise. We shall see. Either way, there’s probably a good reason why I left this one to the very end. It looked depressing. It’s also silent, the version I had was a Korean import as an English release wasn’t available when I purchased it and what do I care about a French national heroine? One the French burned at the stake?
Having now got over all that and actually watched Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece, I can confirm, it is in fact an astonishing piece of filmmaking. Maria Falconetti’s performance must rank amongst the most impressive of all time. Dreyer’s camera spares her nothing in its constant close-ups of her variously traumatised face. And the film really is entirely hers. The gross caricatures of her tormentors loom in and out of the picture, generally filmed from Joan’s lowly perspective, forming one amorphous figure of hatred rather than individual characters.
Joan’s crime in the eyes of her judges is that she is falsifying visions from God and proclaiming to be His daughter. Her real crime of course was being successful in repelling the English from France and ending up in a particularly English friendly court. But her devotion shows why she was so successful on the battlefield. Repeatedly refusing to recant her claims and then recanting her recant, it doesn’t end well for her. Or for her judges for that matter.
The film is no easy watch but it is fascinating. Focusing entirely on Joan’s face, Dreyer shows the various stages of anguish his heroine goes through with minimal intertitles and very little actual action (Joan passes out at one point but otherwise is generally confined to a chair). The range of expressions that Falconetti goes through is pretty stunning and something that is generally not seen now. Restricted by the lack of sound and the minimal dialogue, it seems to bring out the best in the performance. You are immediately thrown into Joan’s seat, leered over by bullying men and feeling the utter desperation of her situation. Trapped between these mortal judges and her total conviction that somehow she will be saved by God.
This is difficult subject matter for a director with no sound but the result is an impressive study of persecution and devotion. Not one for takeaway and beer night though.