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Friday 20 May 2011

Silent Film Marathon: Film 12

This is a film that was considered lost for many years after it's release, due to several accidents and fires. But luckily it was discovered again in 1981 and restored in 1985.
It has since been recognised as one of the masterpieces of the Silent era and Falconetti's performance in particular has received large amounts of praise.

 Technically a French film, under the title of La Passion De Jeanne D'Arc, it was however directed by a Dane. This is the second film directed by a Dane in this marathon, the first being the exceptional Haxan. Dreyer is possibly the most well known Danish director of his time, who in addition to this film directed the somewaht cult Silent film, Vampyres and the non-silent film Ordet which many speak of extremely highly but which I have yet to see. 

 As the title indicates, this film is about Jeanne D'Arc ,or Joan of Arc if you prefer. But make no mistake, it is not about her exploits as a warrior, nor is it an origins story, it is a look at the final days of her life. Her trial and eventual burning at the stake are shown.

It is a methodically paced film, I won't call it slow as it really flies by and has some thrilling sequences, but by modern standards I suppose it is a very slow film.
The plot centres around Jeanne's trial,and the religious debates that form the forefront of the trial. Was Jeanne really a chosen one, sent by God ? Was she merely naive and had been fooled by Satan ? Was she the daughter of God ?
What is evident is that Jeanne is a young (19 years old) woman, who despite the events she had lived through is still very naive, thus she is no match for the wily churchmen who confound her with their trick questions and arguments. But her absolute devotion to the God is even more evident and shines through whatever the churchmen say.
In the face of such devotion the churchmen try various means to get her to confess to being in the service of Satan, kindness, ruse, threat of torture and eventually threat of death at the stake.
After various trials and tribulations Jeanne remains steadfast in her belief that she was doing the work of God, thus she is burnt and becomes a martyr. She is still remembered up to this day, although the way people picture her has become somewhat inaccurate over the years.

The films ability to keep me gripped throughout was very impressive considering the subject matter, which may sound quite tedious on paper but is in fact quite captivating to watch on screen.
But I did have a few problems which the way it was presented, and these are practically my only problems with this film.
I think that the film should have at least mentioned Jeanne's past exploits, such as fighting the English while serving the King of France and being victorious despite her young age and gender. This would have given the viewer some idea of why she is being tried in the first place, and also would have served to support or contradict many things said by the characters, such as when Jeanne said she never hurt anyone, I found this puzzling as she was known primarily for being a warrior. The fact that she went to war could have also been used as an argument against her by churchmen, and this is something that has always bothered me about the story of Jeanne D'Arc, is that she claimed God had spoken to her and commanded her to take up arms against the English, but surely God who spreads brotherly love and peace would not be so blood thirsty, surely he would not bother about war between different countries as in his eyes all men are equal and countries are merely one of man's creations.

Another aspect that I found problematic was the ending, I seriously doubt that there were such riots by the populace as she was considered an enemy of England and a heretic. Furthermore, she had actually been turned over to the English by the French as she was getting too influential, this is not mentioned in the film which is a shame. But I doubt she could have been considered a martyr immediately, her legend would have built up over the years that followed and culminated with her being proclaimed a Saint 25 years after she was executed, making her one of France's Patron Saints.
But as with many such figures, what she represented was far greater than what she actually achieved, she symbolised the deadly rivalry of England and France and the fact that she was a young woman who was nonetheless victorious worked very much in the French's favour. But in reality she was little more than a figurehead and a martyr.

Despite my personal views on the subject, I will admit that the film's narrative was put together admirably, it succeeds in representing Jeanne as a simple human, naive and scared, surrounded by enemies yet still in blind devotion to her God. Although I have not seen any of the other cinematic adaptations of her story, I seriously doubt they could surpass this film, I see it as the definite film on Jeanne D'Arc even if it shows a story that has little to do with the classic image of her, in armour with sword in hand fighting of evil Englishmen.

The set design is extremely minimalistic, mainly white background and small doorways. In fact only a couple of sets are used for the majority of the film, the beginning trial room, Jeanne's room, the torture room and then towards the end, the execution scenes takes place outside where the film gains a slightly larger scale. 
This minimal set design, as well as costume design for that matter, causes the film to rely even more on the performances of the actors.

Maria Falconetti plays Jeanne D'Arc, her performance has been cited as one of the finest ever put to film and I've seen it top lists of best female performances many times.
She certainly looks the part, or at least how I would imagine Jeanne to have looked, and even if she was about 36 when the film was made and the character is supposed to be 19, she's still convincing,the age difference shows but it isn't really a problem as one would imagine Jeanne looking far older than she actually was due to all she had lived through.

Falconetti's performance is really terrific, she deserves the praise she receives as it definitely ranks among the best performances put to screen. The whole film hinges on her performance, as a considerable amount of running time is devoted solely to close ups of her face. Had her performance been even slightly less expressive or convincing the film would have seriously suffered for it. But she is extremely convincing, at times it seemed she wasn't even acting anymore, it seemed as if she truly was living through such torment.
The way Dreyer and his crew shot her close ups only added to her phenomenal performance, making it even more striking and haunting, each subtle change in her expression is visible, and although there are few title cards showing her dialogue as she says little, she is wonderfully expressive.

Another thing worth mentioning about this film is that none of the actors wore any make-up, which was ground breaking for the Silent Era. It definitely makes more an even more modern feel, departing even further from the traditional view of Silent films. It also makes the close ups far more interesting.

The films camerawork was surprisingly modern, now I realise I say this often but this film is really a massive step up from the last film I reviewed Sunrise, which was only released a year before this one.
The camera was in almost constant movement, excluding the numerous close ups of Jeanne, to a degree that I had not seen before once in this marathon. The amount of different angles, crane shots, zooms etc... was astounding and gave the film such a modern feel that it seems hard to believe it was made in 1928.

The shot shown immediately above the previous paragraph was one of quite a few shots taken from a very low angle close to the actors, I had never seen this technique in a silent film before, where the camera is usually level or slightly above the actors. It just adds another perspective to the film, making it even more fascinating from a technical point of view.

Strangely enough the director, Carl Theodore Dreyer a Dane, had never chosen an official soundtrack to the film. This left the restores free to choose one they thought would be fitting.
Thus Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light is played throughout the film and I have to admit it's a perfect choice, it really transports the viewer to the time period with it's sweeping orchestral sounds and lyrics sung in French.

All in all, La Passion De Jeanne D'Arc is essential viewing for any interested in the Silent Era. It may not sound riveting when reading about it, but the magnificent performances, combined with the incredible camerawork and a fitting score make a film that will not leave you unimpressed. Despite the few problems I had with the story as a whole, I still think this is one of the best films I've ever seen.

Up next is a very different film, a real departure for this marathon! Arsenal by Soviet director Dovsenko, so I better get ready for a bit of propaganda!

As always comments are appreciated and will be answered!

 edit: For further reading, check out Bonjour Tristesse's review of this film.

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