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I was very embarrassed to realize that the latest Sight & Sound list of the films perceived by film critics “the best of all times” includes quite a bunch that I not only have not seen, but wanted to see for a long time. Fight procrastination, get the DVDs! And for some rather inexplicable reason, I chose “La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc” as a starting point (might have to do with me starting that project at 3 in the morning, and my assumption was that “Man with a movie camera” would be less … shall we say “entertaining”).

It is an impressive movie on many levels: technically, the Criterion Collection’s transfer has resulted in astounding clarity and harmony of the image. The black and white is neither rough nor overtly contrasted (as I have experienced with previous silent movie re-masterings), it supports the clarity and purity of the sets (the court at Rouen, I believe) and the incredible faces cast for the judges and trial audience in a perfect way. The film’s design is somehow cold, with oppressive white walls and sharp-edged archways. The camera does all kind of things to support the irritation and confusion Jeanne experiences, it flips over, gets close, shoots upwards, alternating between long still shots of Jeanne’s face and the often frantic events surrounding her. Now as for this face itself: I find her to be stunningly beautiful, with her short hair and pure face, slightly over-the-top dreaminess in her expression, often silent observation of the procedures that will lead to her death. From what I know about the historical “facts”, I have the impression that Dreyer very consciously decided not to represent her argumentative and intellectual side too overtly (seems she was quite the counterpart at her trial), but rather to stick with the core of the matter: that the church has decided to kill the one person who seems to have direct access to God’s own thoughts and plans. That let her, how to say, confounded and confused, and to show these emotions, words are not needed. You need a face that can show suffering and innocence, a strong conviction about her beliefs (to the degree if stubbornness, no doubt) and the ability to overcome simple incentives for a cheap way out of her malaise. Ms Falconetti plays this wonderfully, and while there may be two or three cuts to her listening face too many all in all, the holds the film together by being the silent and immobile victim at its center. Nothing is overplayed in the way that we today often associate with the silent movie era, the stage-like excessive expressions are absent, this is a subtle film that also, I think, does not set out to glorify Jeanne d’Arc. Based on the trial transcripts, it shows what seems to have happened: the church decided that a heretic must die, and at the end of the day found an easy victim, because this victim was more afraid of betraying her God than of dying.

I am very happy I finally caught up with this film, and don’t mind that it has been now rather than 20 years ago, after I have seen so many less modern and intensive movies that all were produced at least half a century after “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc”. This film’s beauty stands on its own feet, but its cinematographic power and impact can only be realized from today’s perspective.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/passion_of_joan_of_arc/

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