The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent movie from 1928 has been referred to as one of the better movies ever made. And, now that I've watched, I have to confirm that assesment. This movie is absolutely fantastic. Easily one of the most powerful movies I have ever watched, with one of the most intense performances by an actress.
Renee Jeanne Falconetti is magnificent. She is portrayed mainly in close-up shots, where she display a level of acting without words that many actresses have never achieved. Her facial expressions are so real, so desperate, so harsh, that one wonders whether she is actually acting. You are literally there with her, you suffer as she suffers, and when she turns her eyes to the heavens, desperately pleading for a god who has abandoned her, you shudder and yearn for the response that she searches for, even as you know that no such response or salvation will come to her aid.
Carl Theodore Dreyer depicts her trial and judges as a Gothic frieze. Grotesque priests and abbots scheme, their faces masks, their eyes burning with a hunger that is being slowly teased by Joan's suffering at their hands. Dreyer masterfully evokes the fear that Joan must have felt, and his selective use of cue cards leaves much of what the judges discuss amongst themselves a mystery, leaving us and Joan hopelessly guessing at what vile things they are deliberating over - although by their facial expressions and malicious grins, we know it that it is nothing good.
The movie's strengths are twofold. The first is the camera work. Shots are sparse and uncluttered, and nearly always of people (the torture chamber is a notable exception). Most of the camera shots of people contain only one person, usually a close up, but Dreyer works these shots to convey emotions, which carry the plot more than actions. Indeed, if we were to remove the cue cards and watch the movie sans all words, we would be able to understand exactly what was going on, just by the actors' facial expressions. Dreyer has made his actors appear carved from wood or stone. They are at times hyperbolic representations of particular emotions, the faces almost cartoonish as they leer or rage, but there is no humor in the exaggeration, only fear and repulsion.
The second strength of the movie is fantastic acting, visual acting, really, since speech matters not when you can't hear it. But who needs to hear what is being said when the way it is depicted being said is done so powerfully. The fat, swollen lips of a friar move furiously, and we can feel the anger of his words, we can almost see the flecks of spittle spill as shouts at and berates Joan. We don't know exactly what's being said. But we get it. The acting, if it had sound, might well be deemed over acting. At the least, the numerous scenes of Joan slowly moving her head with hooded eyes would be boring, and wouldn't convey nearly as well the type of sadness and defeat that Joan feels. The scenes can be slow as silent, Joan barely moving. Yet they are powerful in a way that speech cannot match.
Dreyer is a masterful story teller, and he tells this story well. Joan is the focus of the movie, and he doesn't let us forget the horror, the agony that the nineteen year old Joan must have felt as she stood her ground in front of the much older judges who held her fate in their hands. The movie is aptly named. Falconetti depicts a Joan who has so much faith in what she believes to be true, so much passion, that she is willing to be burned at the stake instead of recounting her beliefs. At the end, even the trials judges cannot fail to be moved. A measure of regret plays in their faces, as they perhaps feel pity for what they have done to this poor devoted girl.
In the medieval world the Dreyer provides us with, we can find some measuring of understanding as to why the church was able to wield the power it did. The Church was the world for these people. There were no other answers to life other than those provided by it, and the priests, as God's messengers on earth, were infallible beings who weren't to be crossed, for if they were, consequences were promised for the world to come - after, of course, they were tortured and executed in the world of the here and now.
Can we see ourselves in Joan? We find ourselves constantly asking if we could or would do the same in her position, or if we would ever have the level of commitment to a cause that she displays so admirably, and yet so tragically.
The movie is a tragic one, a story of suffering in a manner that seems to all needless. Perhaps her dedication was misplaced and would better have been directed elsewhere. Yet Joan finds herself in her suffering. She finds the meaning for her existence in this suffering, a suffering the she believes will bring her closer to God and - on a more earthly note - help drive the British from France. Through her suffering she still manages to find and discover meaning. Like her, we suffer, although our trials might not be as large as hers, we still must overcome them. Dreyer's movie, besides being a work of art, shows us, if we look properly, that we may find meaning to our lives even as we suffer, even as we stare into an abyss hoping for a response or turn our eyes to the Heavens hoping for a God, and yet hear no reply.