La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)
During the course of a film class I had several years ago, we watched a 15-minute clip of Carl Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). It was the first time I had ever seen a silent film (or part of one) without some sort of musical accompaniment, but I suspect that it would have only proved to be an intrusion on the unearthly spell of this particular film. Watching it again, this time the whole way through, I can remember precisely the awe that I felt those years ago. La passion is perhaps the purest example of the height of silent film as an art form, for it is first and foremost a stunningly visual piece.
Maria Falconetti stars in only her third film (her first two were made eleven years earlier), but the power of her performance is far superior to most actors who spend their entire lives dedicated to the art form. Falconetti’s Jeanne is a saintly combination of youth, naivity, and complete consumption. She is eclipsed as being merely an actor in her performance by the tangible fire that burns within her for France and God. The apparent simplicity with which she assumes the role of Jeanne only serves to underscore the total purity of this production. At one point, in the midst of her ongoing abuse at the hands of the clergy, a fly happens to land on her eyelid. She does not even flinch, so consumed is she by her agitation, and she absentmindedly brushes the insect away with the slightest touch of her shaking hand.
Falconetti’s performance here is equal only to the direction of Carl Dreyer. It would be difficult to think of a title that so perfectly marries the unearthly talents of two artists such as we see here in La passion. Dreyer makes frequent use of extreme closeups and uncentered shots to give the audience the feeling that they are there with Jeanne, taking every abuse and humiliation that she suffers. The sets are as simple as they can possibly be, making minimal use of props or anything else that would detract from the sharpness of true black and white. Dreyer’s decision to refrain from the sort of extraneous clutter that could have marred (or even ruined) such a masterpiece is a stroke of genius, as this emptiness underscores better than anything else the overflow of Jeanne’s sufferings and anguish. Shots ebb and flow in rapid succession in order to cultivate the desperation of Jeanne’s situation and, like the use of extreme closeups, sweep the audience behind Jeanne’s eyes as she is almost broken between the Church’s threats of excommunication and death and her conviction in the certainty of her mission from God and the survival of France.