Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc
is as truly mythic as any film ever shot, its artistic achievement rivaled by its turbulent history. The focal point of controversy when released in 1928, the original film was lost for a half-century until an intact copy of Dreyer's original version was recovered in the early '80s.
Seeing Joan of Arc today remains a cinematic revelation, its approach to storytelling, set design, editing, and especially cinematography (by Rudolph Maté, who also shot Dreyer's visionary Vampyr) radical then, and still strikingly modern many decades later. Influenced by both German expressionist film and the French avant-garde, Dreyer's huge set was designed with asymmetrical doors, windows, and arches, through which Maté's camera moves along equally off-centered, even vertiginous, but fluid trajectories. Although the story is epic in its implications, the film is composed primarily of extreme close-ups, especially of Joan and her principal interrogator, Bishop Cauchon, and medium shots of small groups, often shot from low angles. Dreyer and Maté shot their cast in bright light, without makeup, giving each wrinkle, blemish, or tuft of hair sculptural detail.
For all its visual invention, however, Dreyer's film is most devastating in its central performance by Falconetti (née Renee Falconetti), a French stage actress who made her only screen appearance here--one critic Pauline Kael has suggested "may be the finest performance ever recorded on film." Through Falconetti, Joan's spiritual devotion, simple dignity, and suffering become utterly real; even without a dialogue track and only sparse inter-titles, the film achieves a fevered eloquence.
This meticulous restoration also includes composer Richard Einhorn's beautiful oratorio, Voices of Light, inspired by Dreyer's film and set to texts by women mystics from medieval and early-Renaissance Europe. A luminous work on its own, Einhorn's oratorio matches both the dramatic arcs and tremulous emotions of Dreyer's film, while its juxtaposition of choral and solo voices (with early-music vocal quartet Anonymous 4 evoking Joan herself) echoes the martyr's confrontation with the court. --Sam Sutherland
Criterion's release of Carl Dreyer's landmark film The Passion of Joan of Arc
is a definitive example of DVD restoration. Initially believed to be lost forever in a fire, this transfer was created at 24 frames per second from a negative of the rediscovered original version. For a film released in 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc
looks absolutely remarkable. As with most silent films, Dreyer's Joan
was originally presented to audiences with different pieces of music. Criterion has chosen composer Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light
for this edition. Inspired by the film, Einhorn's piece, presented in 5.1 surround sound, is a wonderful compliment to Dreyer's visual presentation. Notable extras include a history of the film's many versions and an audio interview with Renee Falconetti's daughter. However, by far the best "extra" is Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg's incredible commentary that informatively combines rich details of the film's importance and content with known historical elements of St. Joan's life, trial and death. --Rob Bracco