The Passion of Joan of Arc was one of a dozen films the authors spoke of as "Remedial Watching for the Baby-Boom Generation" in their chapter on film. Still, as intrigued as I was, and what with being constantly reminded of not only the film's importance, but its greatness, as well, I was still reluctant to watch it. Part of it is the old cynical prejudice most of us bear whenever we feel that something great is being forced upon us. Also, there is the fact that until recently I had a normal modern red-blooded bias against silent films. (Ernst Lubitsch, Sunrise, Greta Garbo, and David Thomson have cured me of that.) And, another part of it was the way the film was being described to me. As many of you know, I am not a big guy for Passion in art. Serious emotive feeling in art gives me the willies most of the time. Although, of course there are exceptions. I am a romantic at heart, who appreciates passion best through an armored window of irony.
“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
So, I basically knew in 1987, when I first learned about this film, that this was probably not my kind of film.
Yet, over this last year, there was a certain momentum building that finally brought us together. I had conducted a movie poll; La Passion made the Sight & Sound's Top Ten list again in 2012 (#9); David Thomson wrote about it in a few different books; and most importantly, the scene in Godard's Vivre sa vie, where Anna Karina watches the film alone in a theater and cries with Falconetti as Joan of Arc.
It was time. TCM showed it on Silent Sundays a couple of days ago, and I made it the prime feature for the Wife and I on Monday evening.
Well, I had nothing to worry about, after all. The key phrase from above in this case would be: "Although, of course there are exceptions." The folks is right. The Passion of Joan of Arc is truly an absolute Masterpiece, and although it might never make my personal Top Ten List, it is one of the greatest motion pictures I have ever seen.
I understand now why Falconetti never acted again. She appears to have been literally drained to a husk before being burned at the stake. Watching her suffering throughout the film almost suggests that the crew and the director must have been verbally abusing her throughout the process.
And, as nearly every single shot in the film is a close-up, it is in the close-ups of her face, where you can actually see bars reflected in her eyes, that her reality from seven centuries ago literally grabs you by the lapel and demands you pay attention.
Of course, the spare expressionistic sets (crosses everywhere!) by Hermann Warm (he worked on The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) and the white hot, crisp as a new sheet of paper lighting are essential to the story of why this film succeeds as it does. The production design and lighting dictate a brutal (yet transparent) interrogational style that are keys to the film's greatness.
But, it is all those close-ups. It is all those faces. With warts and wrinkles and grimy fingernails, and flies being brushed aside by actors. That is what brings home such an old story to a modern audience. This film makes you Joan! All those nasty old men constantly berating you, and abusing you; so close to you that you feel the spit from their mouths as they speak. You are a husk before being burned at the stake.
But, there are four little details about this film I would like to mention before signing off:
- In a few of the scenes, you can see the illustration of a dragon on one of the walls right outside the room Joan was held captive in.
- I love the carnival outside the castle, that presumably is performing at the same time that Joan would be executed; all the freaks showing their 'wares', taking advantage of the situation, an opportunity to make money.
- The mother nursing her child as Joan burns, and
- Near the end of the picture, way in the back of one shot, there is a man, hanging dead from a scaffold.
Sometimes the folks is right, and there are exceptions to every rule.