Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 biopic of the French heroine ranks as one of the best films ever made, says Pádraic Killeen
CARL Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is one of the highlights of the 23rd Cork French Film Festival, this week. Regarded as one of the greatest films ever, it is silent and distinguished by lyrical camera-work and the astonishing lead performance of Maria Falconetti. Based on transcripts from the 15th century trial, Dreyer’s narrative centres on the redemptive spirituality of this young woman of faith in the face of torture and treachery. She is executed. The film’s screening in the evocative Triskel Christchurch will be accompanied by a live score by Cork composer Irene Buckley. The commissioned score is based around the structure of the requiem Mass.
The ‘cine-concert’ will be preceded by a lecture by French film historian Jonathan Broda on the film’s significance. Broda, a lecturer at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, is an expert on the work of Dreyer, a Dane. The Passion of Joan of Arc, he says, is “one of the ten most important movies in the history of cinema.”
What is most exceptional about the film, he says, is its poetic style. “It’s a complex movie with a lot of dimensions,” says Broda. “We have a religious dimension, an emotional dimension, and perhaps also a feminist dimension, but for me Dreyer is more a poet than a priest.”
The many close-ups of Falconetti’s face are poetic. Displaying emotions from anguish to beatitude, Falconetti’s features invest the movie with a mesmerising rhythm. Broda says “A face is more a landscape for Dreyer than a face.”
In 1928, Falconetti was a successful theatre actress, and Dreyer’s trying production would mark a short-lived film career for her. Dreyer was drawn by Falconetti’s face, but also by the sense he had upon meeting her that she had known suffering in her life. “He said that he just wanted to shoot that,” says Broda.
“What is also interesting about Falconetti is that she accepted to play the part without make-up and she accepted also, by contract, to cut her hair during one of the film’s sequences,” he says. This would have been a considerable risk for a popular actress. But Broda says also that the cutting of a woman’s hair is a gesture that would have traditionally carried a negative symbolic value in French society.
“So it’s an incredible symbol and it is perhaps the most emotional sequence of the movie,” he says. The effect of this devastating sequence brought the crew to tears, he says: “According to the film’s costume designer, Valentine Hugo, when they shot the scene all of the crew were crying. All of the crew were rapt in the moment in 1431 when they did that to the real Joan.”
While Dreyer’s films are often a humanist critique of the suffering of women, there are anecdotes about the director maltreating his actresses during shoots to get the required performance.
There are stories, for instance, of Falconetti having to kneel on punishing stone floors ahead of certain shots.
Broda says it is hard to assess the accuracy of these stories. “It’s difficult to answer because we don’t have a lot of evidence left directly by Falconetti,” he says.
“Her daughter wrote a book and tried to explain her life, but it wasn’t very objective. Dreyer said that he and Falconetti worked together with a lot of pleasure. He said that they were in a real collaboration. It wasn’t perfect but she understood it was for the movie.”
Despite its emphasis on Joan of Arc’s anguish, it would be a mistake to regard the film solely as about suffering, says Broda. “I see also sunshine and pleasure and smiling in the face of Falconetti.
“The face, the visage of Falconetti, is perhaps, more than that of Joan of Arc, and perhaps even more than from the feminist point of view, the face of a woman suffering. For me, it’s a beautiful elegy on faith. The film is more poetical than religious and more ethical than nationalistic.”
Ultimately, like so many of Dreyer’s films, The Passion of Joan of Arc locates the spiritual crossroads where the human encounters its own limits, uncovering an experience that exceeds and yet defines our humanity.
Its unrivalled depiction of that experience is just one of the legacies that Dreyer’s film left to cinema.
* The Passion of Joan of Arc screens Saturday in Triskel Christchurch at 8pm. Jonathan Broda’s lecture takes place in UCC at 11am. See www.corkfrenchfilmfestival.com for further details.
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