The Passion of Joan of Arc

Studio: Criterion

Mar 21, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The reputation surrounding Carl Th. Dreyer’s silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is hardly new or surprising. It was named the eighth best movie of all time in the 2012 Sight and Sound poll, and currently sits at 16th in They Shoot Pictures Don’t They’s annual top 1000 list. It’s a marvel of cinematic history as it nears its 90th birthday. It’s no shocker that it was one of the first 100 DVDs the Criterion Collection put out, and even less of a surprising candidate for a Blu Ray upgrade that has been long awaited.

Despite its placement among the annals of film history, a silent, French historical movie that is nearly a century old may be a tough sell to those not obsessively diving into their film education. It may feel more like homework to even consider watching it. This train of thought is unfortunate in general, because it’s immediately slamming a door to the joys of global art, ideas, and expression.

And honestly, I find it difficult to believe that anyone would find The Passion of Joan of Arc to lack an engaging hook or thrill of artistry. Presumably, you know the story. It’s 1431 and Joan claims to have been touched by God. The Catholic Church doesn’t exactly appreciate this, and accuses her of blasphemy, ordering her to repent under threat of torture and death. She is later burned at the stake only to become a martyr, and centuries later be destined for sainthood by the same church that condemned her to death. It’s virtually impossible to spoil this story, and almost 600 years should really cover the statute of limitations on spoiler alerts.

The early years of cinema often featured stationary cameras and long shots with very few cuts resulting in visual storytelling that looks like an ancient ancestor, baring only slight resemblances to where film would go. Part of this is connected to the lack of spoken word being heard, and part is the look. The Passion of Joan of Arc defies those expectations. The camera moves (with a nod to cameraman Rudolph Mate), often in jarring, quick ways, and the cuts are constant and numerous. The close-ups of Renee Falconetti as she defends her faith serve as a testament to the film’s lasting power, as these images don’t fade. At times, she seems frantic (her life IS on the line, after all) and other times very placid. It’s easy to see the crazed side the church tries to paint, but then in her moments of lucidity she comes off as far more reasonable and believable. Obviously, regardless of the truth behind her claims she shouldn’t be burned alive…but it’s another reminder of how women have never really had it easy in society. This is further exemplified by the mix of glee and rage that Joan’s accusers lob her way juxtaposed with the helpless sadness on the faces of the townswomen who witness her execution.

And yet, in spite of Joan’s terror and exhaustion at the hands of her accusers and abusers, she holds firm (save for a brief moment) and obstinate. She accepts her fate, even welcomes it, and this scares the scores of powerful men who have been attempting to break her. In the end, they may kill her, but they can’t fracture her faith. It all hinges on Falconetti’s performance, and it stands as one of the best of its era, and all the subsequent decades of cinema that followed.

The rerelease is not just a glorified cash grab, either. The picture quality is greatly improved from the initial DVD release in its clarity, but that’s to be expected when putting out a Blu Ray edition. There are now two (or, in a way, four) ways to watch the film. The two versions are shown at different frame rates. The version most would be familiar with is the 24 frames per second (FPS), which has become the industry standard after sound, edition from the original release that has also been shown in cinemas over the years. A second version slows the frame rate to 20 FPS. I encourage you to watch the accompanying featurette – which suggests the film was possibly shot at a slower rate on account of the cameras used at the time often prevented a standard from emerging – from film scholar Casper Tybjerg (who also does an audio commentary carried over from 1999) where he explains the merits of both versions. The 20 FPS version slows movement to appear far more natural, and may be more in line with Dreyer’s original intentions while the 24 FPS version appears more jerky and surreal.

In this re-watch, I watched the entirety of the 24 FPS version with the new score from Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and Portishead’s Adrian Utley. This is an alternate score to the more familiar “Voices of Light” edition that is also available in addition to being able to view it without a score at all. The new score – originally composed in 2010 for a series of screenings – is a more contemporary-sounding piece of music with storms of guitars, though it also maintains a classical feel, merging modernity with orchestral tones and chant.

The 20 FPS version features an altogether different score composed by pianist Mie Yanashita (or, again, total silence). This fits the more languid pacing (still comes in under 100 minutes) of the other version.

Tybjerg explains that it’s important to have both versions of the film so the viewer can determine which one is preferred as both have valid arguments surrounding their inclusion. Past that, there’s also a quick documentary detailing the history of all the versions of the film and the negatives over the years, how some were thought lost, and generally how incredible it is we even have as good a print of the film as we do. Personally, I am more inclined to go for the 24 FPS version because the uncanny nature of character’s movements generates a jarring, surrealist set of images that burrows deeply into the psyche. It’s a waking nightmare, though one based in truth. For Joan, it’s a nightmare she can’t wake up from and that makes it all the more terrifying.  

It’s an exhilarating experience, however you choose to watch, and even upon multiple viewings it continues to surprise.



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