Near the end of the silent film era, Carl Theodor Dreyer (Vampyr) would deliver one of the medium’s most powerful titles — The Passion of Joan of Arc. Maria Falconetti stars as the nineteen-year-old French heroine who fought to rescue France from English domination during the Hundred Years War. But she was eventually captured by the English, and Dreyer’s film focuses on her trial for heresy and her martyrdom.
Falconetti made very few films but secured her place in film history with her haunting performance. Most of the film is comprised of closeups of the actress, her large, expressive eyes nearly always watery from her jury’s psychological torture. Nearly a hundred years later, I found the performance only slightly indulgent, in need of some dramatic ups and downs. But there’s no denying its power for the time, and even long after.
While Falconetti is certainly Dreyer’s secret weapon here, all of the actors deserve mention. The film is filled with well-chosen, interesting, and highly expressive faces. Dreyer’s filmmaking style is also far ahead of its time, incorporating fast editing, cross-cutting, inventive camera angles and movement for poetic effect. The camera whips, pans and dollies on monks, priests, and village spectators, but never on Joan. The juxtaposition to her very stable close-ups fixes us all the more in her state of mind.
The film’s cycle of constant questioning and righteous repudiation threatens to become cloying, but it’s interrupted with a sequence inside the ‘torture chamber’ and an all-too convincing blood-letting scene. We all know how the story ends, but Dreyer pulls no punches during an emotional and exciting finale sequence during which Joan is burned alive at the stake and rebellion springs up in her martyrdom.