Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Agony and Irony (The Passion of Joan of Arc)

Roaring 20's Month continues as, via sheer coincidence, today is Ash Wednesday and the slice of early cinematic history up for consideration is The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and released in 1928.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a movie that was covered by the 1001 Movies Blog Club some time ago, and it also happens to be in the top 10 of Sight & Sound’s all-time greatest movies list. All well and good, but whenever I approach any work that was created long enough ago to be considered historic, I automatically set my expectations a little lower. That becomes doubly true when it also happens to be an early example of its medium; a novel from the late 1800’s is going to sit outside my personal frame of reference, but at least it’s a descendent of a long tradition. A movie from the silent era is both outside of my reference and almost devoid of its own contemporaneous references as well. Everything progresses and evolves and grows and improves, which generally means that prototypes are more “interesting” than “good”. I can understand The Passion of Joan of Arc being considered an important landmark, and maybe I might notice one or two geekily amusing things about it, but I did not anticipate that the movie would really have any hooks, let along manage to get any into me.

OK, so was that adequate set-up to telegraph the oh-how-wrong-I-was that comes next? Any preconceived notions I had about how silent films are usually about as visually dynamic as camcordered school plays were dismissed from the very opening, with a long slow tracking shot the moves from left to right within the chamber that will house the trial of Joan of Arc. A number of older men in religious vestments are seated with their backs to the camera, but their faces are visible because they are all turned to the right, straining to catch a glimpse of something coming their way. The movement of the camera combined with the restless postures of the actors creates this visceral need to see what’s approaching, and then finally the answer is revealed, as Joan, small and waifish with her gamine haircut and her men’s clothes, is led through the door in shackles. Directors control what the audience sees as well as how they see it, and Dreyer clearly understood that completely and exploited it to the fullest.

The movie then proceeds to depict Joan’s trial, and as with most silent movies this is done through a combination of pantomime acting and intertitle cards of dialogue; not everything every character says gets a card, but the gist comes across all the same. It’s to the movie’s benefit that the historically-sourced story being told is larger than life, which requires Joan’s saintly, wide-eyed innocence and her inquisitors’ contemptuous zealotry. But the actors imbue everything with genuine and recognizable human emotion, even in exaggeratedly angled close-ups, particularly Maria Falconetti as Joan. Her performance is often cited as the main reason why The Passion of Joan of Arc is such an enduring masterpiece, and rightly so. As the action (such as it is) moves from the trial chamber to Joan’s cell to the torture chamber and back to Joan’s cell again, Falconetti holds the center and her plight grips the audience. Considering that Joan’s fate is a foregone conclusion, that is no mean feat.

I do need to point out that I noticed a couple of glaring anachronisms in the movie. When Joan is condemned to death her cute-short hair is cut down to the scalp by a monk wielding a pair of fairly modern-looking scissors, which I’m just about positive did not exist as such in the 1400s. There’s also a monk who attends Joan’s execution wearing modern eyeglasses. I’d like to be able to say that these are sly, on-purpose bits of surrealism included by Dreyer, but I think it’s far more likely they were simply oversights. Which is odd, since the haircutting ends with the locks on the floor being swept up by a reasonably medieval-looking broom onto a reasonably medieval-looking wooden tray. Still, I must cut Dreyer some slack because he did use a significant amount of his budget to build an entire freaking (concrete) castle for use as a set, including a working drawbridge (we’ll get back to that in a moment). This must rank up there near my personal favorite example of directorial excess, Werner Herzog’s transporting a steamship over a small mountain for Fitzcarraldo.

At any rate, the movie simply works as a very affecting, intimate portrait of a fascinating historical figure. I’m sure to a certain extent the music helped; I watched the Criterion Collection edition of the film which is scored by the oratorio “Voices of Light”, composed in 1994 and inspired by the film. But I don’t want to take anything away from what Dreyer accomplishes in silent black and white moving images. The film has an almost meditative quality, which of course is apt. And then, just when I had fully settled into this thoughtful mode of experiencing the film, it reaches its climax, moving from interiors to exteriors as Joan of Arc is burned at the stake. At two separate points Dreyer has the camera follow a crowd through city gates from overhead, with the camera inverting itself in an unbroken take, and if that’s not supposed to symbolize the world turning upside down in madness as an innocent girl is condemned to death by the church for believing in God too much, then somebody come and take back my English degree. (It’s in the basement, I think.) The movie itself pretty much goes insane as Joan is martyred, with every shot focusing on something symbolic, from birds in flight against the sky to growing flames, weeping peasants to worms crawling out of skulls disinterred by the gravedigger. After Joan expires a full-on riot breaks out, with castle guards subduing the holy hell out of outraged peasants using spiked ball-and-chains, only to ultimately retreat and raise the drawbridge (remember the drawbridge?). The violence of the guards attacking the rioters is visceral and palpable, and all the more disturbing as it’s intercut with shots of the stake still burning like wild, with a very realistic Falconetti-shaped dummy lashed to it.

So The Passion of Joan of Arc is a movie that does it all, and more importantly did it all with very little in the way of precedent to look to for guidance. It’s not merely an amazing film considering it was made in 1928, it is an amazing film, full stop.

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