I have mentioned it on several occasions in this space but it bears repeating – in recent years, I have really taken to silent films. There is something equally haunting and engaging about them that feels almost otherworldly. Anchoring our auditory senses in the experience are the musical cues, which themselves are carefully chosen and constructed to tell the story without dialogue. Sometimes, I have observed that if you listen close enough, the musical chords sound like words …
Now I have another favorite to add to my ever increasing list – The Passion of Joan of Arc. Directed by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer in the French language (for the intertitles), The Passion is a beautiful emotive experience. Although I must admit that I am quite spoiled in this regard, having seen it at TCM Classic Film Festival a couple of months back. This screening of The Passion was shown at the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in downtown Hollywood. Led by conductor Dr. Mark Sumner, Director of UC Berkeley Choral Ensembles and the UC Alumni Chorus, the live orchestra and vocalists performed composer Richard Einhorn’s 1994 oratorio Voices of Light. It was, in a word, a singularly mesmerizing way to experience any motion picture.
But even putting this moment aside, the visual storytelling is one that is never to be forgotten. Actress Renée Jean (credited in the film as Maria) Falconetti portrays the titular Joan of Arc, as she faces trial and (spoiler alert) execution at the hands of her English captors. The action depicted in The Passion is based on the actual court records of the trial in 1431.
By using EXTREME closeups on Falconettis’s visage, the viewer is in for a fully immersive experience. By the closing acts of the film, I fully understood what many before have told me about this film and why it was recommended to me on several occasions. It is a film and a performance that I easily rank as one of the most beautiful and moving I have seen on the silver screen.
Note: The run time for this film is 82 minutes, which is the restored version. As with so many early films, The Passion also had a varied and curious history. The original master negative for the film was destroyed in a fire in 1929, shortly after the film’s initial release. There are records of various ‘cuts’ of The Passion cropping up over several decades until in 1981, an employee of the Dikemark Hospital, a mental institution in Oslo, Norway, found an original (not master) print in a janitor’s closet.
(Sources: Wikipedia, TCM Film Festival)