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February 22, 2010


PassionDanish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer was reveling in the success of his 1925 film "Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife" when he was approached by French producers to create an art film for the international market. The teenaged Maid of Orleans who, dressed as a man, led the French to victory against the occupying English forces in the early 15th century had been canonized by the Pope in 1920.  The young peasant was also celebrated in a popular stage play by George Bernard Shaw when Dreyer chose the martyr as his subject for the production. As such, the global public at large were primed for a cinematic adaptation that would put a face to the name. 

Dreyer chose to build his particularly transcendental style for the silent film around Renée Jeanne Falconetti, an expressive French stage comedienne with only one other film to her credit. Focusing his passion play on the heroine's 1431 trial, as drawn from historical transcripts, enabled Dreyer to concern himself less with external elements of location, scenery, and costume. His vision was a stylized theatrical background to the landscape of the martyr's face against the religious and political hypocrisy of the patriarchy that condemned her.   

Dreyer conceived the film as "a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life," with the human face as its mirror. Using panchromatic film stock to capture his actors' faces, without the addition of make-up, Dreyer made groundbreaking use of extreme close-ups to weigh Joan's spiritual gravity against the sadistic intentionality of her religion-cloaked oppressors. The enormous amount of emotional empathy that Dreyer extracts from his audience is heightened by our involuntary association with our heroine's tormented psychological state. We watch her break, and our hearts break with Falconetti's character. 

Joan of Arc

The actress's shockingly modern performance as the 19-year-old Joan (nee Jeanne) is a thing of irreproachable suffering. Banned after its release in Britain for its depiction of inhumane British soldiers, the film's two original prints were destroyed by fire. It wasn't until 1981 that a copy of the primary print was discovered in a "janitor's closet of an Oslo mental institution." The film was restored with a new musical score entitled "Voices of Light" written by composer Richard Einhorn. The result is a truly transcendent experience of timeless cinema, made all the more ethereal by the fact of its mooted voices. If you doubt that Silent Cinema can be more powerful than Sound Pictures, you need only see this masterpiece on a big screen.


Not Rated. 114 mins. (A+) (Five Stars — out of five / no halves)

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