REVIEW – The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

FilmJuice have my review of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s immortal The Passion of Joan or Arc, which is being released on the 26th of this month by Masters of Cinema.

Set after the capture of Joan of Arc by the English, the film chronicles the authorities’ attempts to try and convict Joan as either a fraud, a witch, a heretic or all three at once. Shot very simply and all the more powerful for this simplicity, the film distinguishes between the ethereal world inhabited by the peasant Joan and the corrupt and venal world inhabited by the supposedly holy churchmen. Dreyer establishes this distinction simply by point his camera at the actors’ faces and allowing the simple authenticity of Joan’s tears stand in stark contrast to the weathered faces and knowing smiles of her inquisitors:

Like many of the silent films released by Masters of Cinema in recent months, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a powerful reminder of how much can be accomplished with limited technological resources.  While Hollywood spends billions producing films that struggle to make you feel anything other than boredom, Dreyer invokes the full weight of human sympathy by showing a tear roll down an actress’s cheek.

Since hooking up with FilmJuice earlier this year, I’ve been fortunate enough to review a goodly number of Masters of Cinema’s recent releases.  I really feel as though this process has been something of an education for me as visiting brilliant but sometimes under appreciated films from earlier eras has allowed me to get a really good feel for which filmmakers have proved influential and which important lessons have somehow been lost. For example, when I reviewed a number of films by Pier Paolo Passolini, I realised that many of his experiments had failed to catch-on in the way that those of his contemporary Antonioni clearly did. Watching Pasolini, I was struck by the idea that film history could have been radically different had it gone down the avenue of intensely personal metaphor rather than emotional evocation. I got the same feeling watching The Passion of Joan or Arc as filming a human face in emotional distress is surely a far more effective manner of eliciting sympathy than the sophisticated emotional manipulation you get in most Hollywood films. People talk about art house film being difficult compared to Hollywood blockbusters but it strikes me that blockbusters are a good deal more artistically sophisticated and difficult than Dreyer’s use of a tear rolling down a cheek… the difference is that we have grown so accustomed to the artifice and complexity of Hollywood filmmaking that we now see the simple and the pure as pretentious and fake.