Movie Project #47: The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Writers: Joseph Delteil, Carl Theodor Dreyer
Country: France
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, André Berley
Running Time: 82 minutes

During this year’s 50 Movies Project, I have seen a number of great films, many of which I would now even consider among my favorites. None of these, however, could have prepared me for the experience of watching the 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, for the first time.

Before watching this highly-regarded Carl Theodor Dreyer classic, I knew very little of the true Joan of Arc story. This was something that I never learned in school or had even heard of until I was much older. Yet it resonated with me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

The film focuses on the trial of Joan of Arc, a 19-year-old French maiden who, claiming divine guidance, led the French army against England during the Hundred Years’ War. After being captured by a group of French who remained loyal to England, she is put on trial for charges of heresy. Unable to get a confession out of Joan, the English bishops begin to ridicule and torture her. This does not prove effective, however, as Joan is adamant about her visions and guidance from God. Claiming charges of “insubordination and heterodoxy”, the English eventually tie her to a stake and horrifically burn her alive.

The on-screen proceedings are based on the actual trial documents, and this fact only adds to the emotional experience provided by the film. The way Joan is treated by what is essentially a group of old, bald, white guys that represent the Church is absolutely disgusting. She is mocked and treated cruelly by most involved, and the actual execution is presented as if it were a circus (complete with carnival performers and men on stilts). In fact, it is not until Joan is literally burning at the stake that the townspeople cause a ruckus. I know the world was significantly different in the 15th century (obviously), but it’s just baffling that something like this could even happen.

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s performance as Joan of Arc is widely considered to be one of the best of all time, and I’m not even going to try to argue that point. Her facial expressions, often shown through Dreyer’s extreme close-ups, will haunt you for days. Legends state that Falconetti was legitimately treated harshly on set, being forced to kneel on hard stone for hours at a time in an effort to provoke genuine emotion out of her. Perhaps this treatment is why she never starred in another film after this; a shame, too, given her flawlessness here.

Quite frankly, The Passion of Joan of Arc completely blew me away. I had my reservations about watching a silent film that would appear to be dialogue-heavy, but I was transfixed from the very first scene. The version I watched was the one Dreyer intended, meaning that it was completely silent — no orchestra or score to speak of. This added to the intensity on screen, but I would love to watch this again someday with one of the acclaimed scores created afterward. Almost 100 years later, this film remains startingly effective.


27 thoughts on “Movie Project #47: The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

  1. Victor De Leon says:

    Wonderful review of such an iconic silent film! I haven’t seen this film in a very long time. I hope to re-visit it soon, perhaps at The George Eastman House here in Rochester NY, if they have a print.

  2. ckckred says:

    Nice review. I watched this again a few months ago and it was as stunning as my first viewing. Easily one of the best films of all time and I would agree that Falconetti’s performance is the strongest I’ve seen.

  3. ruth says:

    WOW, 10/10! You’ve got me even more intrigued to see this Eric. I’m not familiar w/ Joan of Arc story either, and this film has eluded me for so long. I should check this one out soon!

  4. theartisticpackrat says:

    I agree. Such an excellent film. It’s one of my favorites, as well. Falconetti is brilliant. Never knew Dreyer intended it to be seen sans music. That would explain why that’s an option on the Criterion edition of the film. I do recommend it with the score available on the Criterion edition. It may seem a bit odd at first, but you get used to it. It’s an extremely good score.

    Oh, and great review.

  5. Chris says:

    wow, a rare 10/10, so this is one of your all-time favorites now, is it? The use of close ups and the central performance were amazing, I agree.
    A couple of other Carl Theodor Dreyer films I watched last year, and was really impressed by: Day of Wrath (1943) and The Word (1955).

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