Never has someone's face stirred up such emotions in me like Renee Maria Falconetti's painful portrayal of Joan of Arc. The film is based on the the records of her trial and depicts that last day of her life. The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the few silent films that would not gain at all from the addition of sound. While various silent films-- most notably Nosferatu: The Symphony of Horror-- have been remade with great success with sound, no such attempt has been made for this film, and rightfully so. Such emotion takes you breath away, when the tears run down Joan's face it will tear you apart inside. Set mostly either inside a courtroom, Joan's prison cell, or in a torture chamber there is not much moving around or vast sets in which the film is set. Passion uses only the essentials: powerful performances, informative, and powerful dialogue-cards, expressive direction, and breathtaking passion.
Nineteen year old French army leader Joan of Arc (Renee Maria Falconetti) is brought to trial. She is aggressively interrogated by the Judge (Michel Simon) and other English religious men. Joan claims to be the daughter of God and states that she was visited by Saint Michael. Instead of believing her the Judge and other attendees dismiss her and call her a spawn of Satan, but there are very few that do consider her a saint. Her pain and extraordinary determination is made evident in this film. They can break her body, but they will never break her spirit.
It isn't fully known how many films Maria Falconetti was featured in, and the stories of her being discovered by director Carl Theodor Dreyer never seem to end. But what is a known fact is that Falconetti was never in anything big after this film, and no one has ever been able to match her greatness in this performance. To remember silent films the image that will always stay in our minds is the innocent and tortured face of Maria Falconetti. Dreyer was able to use Falconetti's unique face and wonderfully acting to a perfection with endless closeups and angles that would allow viewers to be able to see the struggle of Joan, one of the true martyrs. Even today the average viewer will be shocked to see how powerful this film from 1928 is. Besides for the obvious qualities of this film using no sound or color there seem to be shockingly few differences from the films of today. Unlike today's film where the art of film has all but vanished, Passion is more art than film. Instead of having some outrageous plot that is only appealing to simple minded people Passion uses a very straight forward plot that uses art to make this film a masterpiece. It is Maria Falconetti that brings the true beauty and it is her that is the passion of The Passion of Joan of Arc.
This is how the story basically goes: Carl Theodor Dreyer goes to a play and he falls head over heels for a young actress who has a face the shows true torment. With seeing her face he ultimately decides he will make a film about the trial of Joan of Arc and that this young women by the name of Renee Maria Falconetti with be his Joan. And the rest is history. That would be the end of the story for just a regular fan of movies, but not for me and all the other film fanatics out there, nope for us there still are the details of how Passion became such a great film. At this point in his life Dreyer was already a respected filmmaker with back-to-back well received films-- Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife (1925) and Bride of Glomdal (1926). Instead of making a film with a large budget and using well known actors,-- like most directors were doing at the time-- he instead used a small budget and unknown actors.
Amazingly the records of Joan of Arc's trial were kept in good condition and were even more amazingly accurate. Many historians even said they were close to being exactly perfect. Once Dreyer got his hands on the trial he became obsessed and knew that he had to make this into a film, but like so many great films he had plenty of trouble in the production of this film. Though once the production problems had passed he mas able to work his magic. He saw no need for large sets or lots of camera work. Instead he used a very small set and almost the entire film is in closeups on the characters faces. With doing that you are able to see real emotions, not fake emotions just referenced. Viewers are forced to see the ignorance and hatred in the faces of Joan's captors, accusers, and her persecutors. Passion is a true depiction that knows what it is trying to do and will do whatever possible to portray it to the very fullest.
Now the rest truly is history. The Passion of Joan of Arc became and instant classic and was immediately considered one of the greatest films ever. With saying that I don't intend to leave out the criticism that this film predictably was going to face. I will start with the most obvious scene: Joan being burned on the stake. That very quickly stated scene is one of the most powerful scenes ever. Feautring 1920s style violence Joan's death is portrayed as it should have been. Joan is shown with a fixed face of determination and approval of her death. The only time her face changes is at the slight moment when the fire begins to hit her, but it doesn't change for long. Real greatness comes from the reactions of the citizens, the citizens are shown to be crying and appalled at Joan's execution. And once she has died they start an all-out riot. That isn't the point though because even though the citizens seemed to truly care it wasn't until 1856, twenty-five years later, that Pope Callixtus III pronounced her innocent and declared her a martyr. With Dreyer's considerate direction and Falconetti's masterful performance The Passion of Joan of Arc is a classic that will never fade away just like the stories of the women it portrays.