Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) receives a welcome Dual Format rerelease this week, bundled with two very distinct versions of the film. The first, a painstaking 20FPS restoration featuring a delicate piano score from Japanese composer Mie Yanashita, is widely regarded as the purist’s choice, so faithful is this rendition to those released at the time. Conversely, the shorter 24fps incarnation offers a sprightlier, staccato aesthetic, complemented by Loren Connors’ revisionist musical accompaniment. Thankfully, both versions are more than worthy of your time and consideration.
Far and away the greatest cinematic meditation on the Christ-like French heroine to date, Dreyer’s emotionally tempestuous chamber piece charts the final few hours of the fabled Maid of Orléans’ life, leading up to her brutal execution at the stake at the hands of the English invaders and their French collaborators. Shot mostly in extreme close-up, we watch on as Joan is teased and tortured by her most unholy of captors, enduring throughout with the glassy-eyed stoicism of one of God’s true believers and most beloved children. A parable not just of cultural and religious persecution but also of rank misogyny, Dreyer’s ode to humanity’s second greatest martyr can often feel like a tough and bruising watch.
So solemn and serious is the Dane’s Passion in its overall construction, that even the strictest of atheists may well feel the smallest twinge of divine longing, holding their collective breathes until the saintly Joan is able to taste the sweet release from her mortal bonds and into the life hereafter. A great deal has rightly been made through the decades of French stage and screen star Maria Falconetti, whose turn as the besieged peasant girl is nothing short of revelatory. Every single nuanced expression of anguish or solitary, rolling tear has far more emotive power than many a performer has managed to muster in an entire career, with neither prosecutors nor innocent onlooker comfortably able to hold Joan’s gaze at certain points in the film.
Equally as astounding as Falconetti’s heroic portrayal is Dreyer’s cinematographic selection of shots and framing devices, using his often intrusive viewfinder to reveal humanity at its most base and raw – for better or for worse. It’s easy to see why, as The Passion reaches its violent climax of unrest and uprootal, the figure of Joan was able to inspire such revolutionary action in the downtrodden and oppressed societal masses. Even today, Dreyer’s monolithic work still feels stark and incendiary, a fiery slap to the face of those subjugated by the powers that be. With The Passion of Joan of Arc, the world arguably saw the very best of both Dreyer and Joan – whilst also something approaching the very worst of humanity.