The Passion of Joan of Arc is a hard sell.
Ninety-percent of its run time is devoted to extreme close ups on star’s Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s tormented face. The other ten percent is almost exclusively reserved for arcane theological battles.
But as I settled into my seat in the historic Texas theatre for Oak Cliff Film Festival’s screening of Passion, the atmosphere was full of tense excitement.
Part of this was undoubtedly due to the thrill of seeing the film accompanied by Curtis Heath’s orchestra, performing the hypnotic music of composer George Sarah. Seeing the musicians assembled on the stage in front of the screen definitely set the right tone of anticipation. Music drives our emotions during a film experience, and knowing that through Dreyer’s intense meditation on faith, femininity, and suffering we would at least have the comfort of live performers and an inventive score gave the auditorium a sense of giddy breathlessness.
Moments before the lights went down and the musicians were introduced, an older woman settled into the seat neat to me with her young granddaughter. The girl couldn’t have been more than ten, but she was excited to see the movie. “It’s our first time at the film festival,” the grandmother gushed to me, as she explained the Joan myth to her granddaughter. When I asked the little girl if she’d seen a silent film before, she told me this would be her first time. “I’m happy I get to share this with her,” her grandmother said as the lights lowered and the film began.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Passion is a simple story: Joan, a peasant girl from France, has been captured by the English during the 100 Year’s War. Her only crime is leading her troops to victory...and claiming that she hears the voice of God. And of course, there’s the whole problem of her dressing like a male soldier in a time period when a woman could be executed for witchcraft for literally any deviation from the “norm.” Joan is on trial for her life, forced to defend her faith and her resolve in the face of mockery, suffering, and soul-crushing doubt.
I have a weakness for silent films that began with Lang’s Metropolis. But that film, with it’s fantastic setting, dozens of characters, and loads of spectacle is as different from Passion as a Marvel film would be. Going into Passion, I was skeptical about how Dreyer and Falconetti were going to pull it off. A silent film that’s mostly theological arguments? Please.
But Dreyer works to establish a propulsive, agonizing tone from the first frame. The huge fortress (built specifically much to the chagrin of the production company) is barren, vast and eerily empty. Populated solely by unsmiling interchangeable men, Joan looks frail, fragile and singularly alone in that grey sea of torment. When the interminable questioning begins, the director’s use of tight, uncompromising close-up shots on Falconetti’s anguished face bind her inextricably to the audience.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Falconetti’s face carries the film. She’s able to capture the fanatic’s crazed thousand-mile stare as well as the calm of the saint she’s modeled on. Vacillating between joyous, religious rapture, despair, and transcendent patience, it’s impossible not to find yourself caught up in Joan’s tribulation, and to feel the horror of her execution.
I don’t think I need to give a spoiler alert for a ninety year old film, but the end of the movie is a thing of terrible, savage beauty, made all the more ethereal by the score provided by Curtis Heath’s orchestra and vocalists. As the Gregorian chants and slow, grinding intensity of the electronic score gave way to wails and soaring arcs of noise, all perfectly in tune with the ravaging flames and burgeoning riot on the screen, the tension in the theater was almost unbearable. The peasants, enraged at Joan’s death, storm the fortress, and the sense of release, of rage, was nearly palpable.
Beside me, the grandmother and granddaughter sat, just as absorbed in the film as I was. Leading up to the scene of Joan’s immolation, the grandmother lead her granddaughter out of the auditorium. Even though I’m a proud veteran of a childhood full of watching drastically inappropriate movies, I had to agree with the grandmother’s decision. It’s hard to imagine a nearly 100 year old movie being raw, upsetting and extreme enough that you wouldn’t want a child to watch it, but after the emotional build-up, all the trails we see Joan suffer, and all the affection we feel for her, her death is at once an inescapable denouement and an unutterable tragedy. It speaks volumes about the artistry of that film, but I can’t help but wish the grandmother had let her granddaughter stay just a little longer to see Dreyer’s fantastically satisfying finale when Joan’s death is at least partly avenged.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is a masterpiece no matter where you watch it, but seeing it at the OCFF accompanied by a wondrous, brutal score made it a singularly intense experience. Caught up with the crowd in Joan’s story, I was surprised at my own reaction to the film. I knew the story of Joan well, and I’d read about Dreyer’s film in detail. None of these prepared me for the raw, emotional turmoil of viewing the movie with that delightfully diverse crowd and the perfectly paired music.