Passion of Joan of Arc, The (1928)

Drama Rated NR

If the cinema had a face, it would have to be that of Maria Falconetti.

As the star – the celestial center, really – of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s dramatization of the trial of Joan of Arc, Falconetti is a religious icon come to life. This makes her performance sound operatic, yet what’s astonishing is how much subtlety Falconetti brings to the part, especially given that this is the silent era. Her eyes are wild in so many different ways, registering fear, confusion and defiance depending on the need of the scene. There is even excitement in those moments when she seems to be looking right through her accusers toward the heaven in which she resolutely believes.

Falconetti so dominates the screen that it’s easy to forget there are other faces in the movie too. In his casting and inventive camerawork, Dreyer makes each of Joan’s accusers grotesque in their own way. One peruses his fingernails with abhorrent indifference. Another grins while sporting horn-like shocks of hair. Then there are the warts dotting the face of an interrogator as he glowers at her from his perch. The Passion of Joan of Arc is, in essence, a masterpiece of ingeniously edited reaction shots. The few title cards that exist in most prints are hardly needed to understand what hangs in the balance during each scene.

The movie is also startling in the relevance it returns to the cross as a symbolic image. Reduced to meaninglessness by decades of cinematic over-use, here the cross is a stark signifier of both earthly power and heavenly comfort. At one point, distraught in her cell, Joan notices that the bars in the window cast a cross-shaped shadow on the floor. (In a stinging touch, Dreyer has an interrogator walk over that exact spot as he approaches Joan, wiping the image out.) The movie is, in part, a battle of crosses: Joan’s accusers prop theirs up before her as ideological weapons; she clings to one that’s been given to her as she approaches the pyre.

After the actual burning – a haunting piece of unblinking cinema – this interior film about interior anguish erupts into something much larger, as the villagers revolt against Joan’s killers. Dreyer handles the riot scenes with as much mastery as he did the earlier close-ups, ending his film on a note of righteous outrage. Joan’s conviction – the suffering passion of the film’s title – is quieter, yet no less effective. In a film of iconic images, her face is the one you’ll never forget.