The Passion of Joan of Arc
aka La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc First screened and reviewed in 1998 / Most recently screened and re-reviewed in May 2021
Director: Carl-Theodor Dreyer. Cast: Renée Falconetti, Antonin Artaud, André Berley, Jean d'Yd, Louis Ravet, Maurice Schutz, Eugene Silvain, Michel Simon, Jacques Arnna, Léon Larive, Armand Lurville, Alexandre Mihalesco. Screenplay: Carl-Theodor Dreyer and Joseph Delteil (based on the novel by Joseph Delteil).
Humility is next door to awe. Both are among the great promises of cinema. I start almost every movie, even when it would be wiser not to, hoping I might feel one or the other. In very rare cases like The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film inspires bothbut as much as they overlap, they are not the same. If forced to choose, humility is the reaction I cherish most, because it extends further beyond the movie itself. What I mean is this: when I'm awestruck by The Passion of Joan of Arc, I am marveling, beyond the brink of comprehension, at how Dreyer and Maté thought to place the camera where they did; how Dreyer and Beaugé sensed what power they could extract from harsh cuts between opposed characters or between alternate, reverse-face closeups of the same person; how Falconetti found those emotions, those tears, those postures, and how she withstood whatever that shoot must have felt like; how the production designers conceived that precise balance of blank-sheet austerity and violent portent in their sets. How they staged that fire. How they staged that riot. How everything implies a soul, inside and above the film. I could go on. I cannot believe these artists devised all this, through whatever combination of accident and intent. I'm elated by their individual and collective genius. In this context, I'm not even embarrassed by the word "genius."
But more than that, I'm humbled. By this film, and also by film, especially but not only when it's at its best. By this depiction of a truly extraordinary life, but also by the life in question. By the magnitude of what people like these artists can achieve in solidarity, and by the enormity of what people like these judges can perpetrate in concert. By what it means to commit to a belief and to truly, madly, deeply accept a consequence. By how hard film artists work to afford us access to this level of introspection, of wonder, of grief. By all the heavy history we've all inherited, and how little of it anyone knows.
Everything about The Passion of Joan of Arc is astounding, not least its own mind-blowing triumphs and tribulations as an object in the world. (If you don't know that the initial master print died in a fire, just like Joan did, and that the movie that survived,?itself thought lost for decades,?is actually a composite that Dreyer assembled post-blaze, all from takes he rejected for that first cut... that's A LOT, and not even all of it!) I sometimes show students portions of The Passion when I'm teaching the remarkable review by the imagist poet H.D. in my course on film criticism. I'll show some more of it this week while teaching Steve Erickson's tremendous, movie-mad novel Zeroville to my large lecture class about cinema and literature. That artists as singular as H.D. and Erickson are ignited with such inspiration but also pressed to their own expressive and imaginative limits by The Passion of Joan of Arc seems like further proof, were any needed, of the movie's inexhaustible, almost occult power. The awe it inspires resurfaces in other art, graven in its image.
But the humility, too, is contagious. Neither H.D.'s review, which reads as a prose poem or a transcript of hypnosis, nor Erickson's novel, which is a dark loop and a fearsome prayer, pretends to have found adequate language for this film. Who, in almost 100 years, has? How else could this movie have been anything but silent, even if it were made decades later? The awe I feel! But more than that, the humility. Grade:A+