Are you in a state of grace?
If I am, may God keep me there; if I am not, may He grant it to me.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film with a storied history. It focuses on the final days of Joan’s life when she’s being held and questioned by the Inquisitors and, surely this isn’t a spoiler, ultimately sentenced to death. The religious content was extremely controversial at the time and so the film was hacked up and released in several different versions. Dreyer’s original version was considered lost until it was found in a closet of a Norwegian mental institution. That’s the version on the Criterion disc, which is what I watched. It can be viewed there totally silent or with Voices of Light, an oratorio inspired by the film, as a soundtrack. I’ve seen it both ways and I can honestly say that the Voices of Light score adds to the film and is itself elevated by the film.
I first encountered this film eight or nine years ago I’d say and I’ve actively avoided watching it sense. There was a fear that a second viewing might reveal the film as less transcendent, cathartic and intense as I’d found it the first time. To some degree, I wanted to cherish the intense spiritual experience of my first viewing. But I got over my fright and I’m glad I did because the film once again provoked a really intense emotional experience and remains, by my more objective standards, a genuine masterpiece. Dreyer’s decision to focus solely on Joan’s final days is a strange, but compelling one. The performances are all excellent, particularly that of Marie Falconetti, in her only lead film role, as Joan. Her striking, androgynous appearance, Dreyer’s use of extreme close-ups and her extraordinarily intense and emotionally gut-wrenching performance all combine to create one of the all-time great screen characters. The film ultimately becomes an extremely evocative and beautiful meditation on faith in extremis. The film sets Joan’s faith against the faith of the Inquisitors in some striking and unexpected ways, but it’s a lot more than just a philosophical treatise. It’s a character study, a brilliant example of early cinema, nothing short of a perfect showcase for Falconetti, and, ultimately, an unforgettable, thought-provoking, emotionally powerful, spiritually transcendent masterpiece. I can’t say enough good about it. It holds up. As Joan herself might agree, I should never have doubted. 4 stars.
tl;dr – astonishing lead performance from Falconetti anchors a brilliant, transcendent meditation on faith that packs a powerful emotional punch. 4 stars.