Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Cast: Renée Jeanne Falconetti, Eugène Silvain, André Berley, and Maurice Schutz
Cinematography: Rudolph Maté
Streaming: HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple TV
Why I Love It: Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s performance as Joan of Arc is one of the most moving in cinematic history. This silent masterpiece is full of startlingly intimate close-ups in which Falconetti’s face is the only thing in your field of vision. Because there’s no audible dialogue, she has to convey everything in her performance through movement, through her facial expressions—everything is an exercise in the theater of the body.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is the first silent film I can remember bringing me to tears. At times it is painful to watch, but films like this one are the reason cinema is its own art form. For the true cinephile, the Criterion Collection edition is a must. Along with numerous other extras which add depth and context to the viewing experience, Criterion’s home release comes with two different presentations of the film: the traditional 24 frames per second and another at 20 frames per second.
Also noteworthy is the expressionistic lighting used by cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who later immigrated to the United States and became a director and producer as well. His cinematography credits during his career in Hollywood include such films as Dodsworth (1936), Stella Dallas (1937), Love Affair (1939), and Foreign Correspondent (1940), among many others. You can clearly see the influence of his earlier work in European Expressionism in his later work in American film noir.
How does one begin the process of classifying superlatives in art? Once you start drawing lines of demarcation and establishing hierarchies, it is inevitable that some works just as worthy as those classified as “The Greatest” will be pushed to the margins, relegated to the corners—all but forgotten. But then again, if everything is great then nothing is great.
So we have experts. We have aestheticians. We have people who spend their entire lives studying one particular subject so we can go to them when we need a professional’s opinion. As in science, so in art. We look to the learned, the credentialed, and the eloquent. We look outside our own limited experiences and perceptions for something that rings true.
Why did I say all that? So I could then say this: The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the greatest films of all time. So say the film scholars, the cineastes, the commentators, and the iconoclasts. And so say I. Don’t trust me. See it for yourself.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the first post in my new series. Check back soon for more of my Favorite Films.
Out of Darkness: The Influence of German Expressionism by Matt Millikan
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