- The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) movie review: Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s French-made cinematic masterwork will leave viewers as anguished as its martyred heroine, memorably played by stage actress Maria Falconetti.
The Passion of Joan of Arc movie review: Great restoration of one of cinema’s masterpieces
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent The Passion of Joan of Arc / La passion de Jeanne d’Arc separates the strong from the weak. You either love it – as I do – or hate it.
The film has an interesting background: It was censored; it was lost; and it was rediscovered inside a closet in a lunatic asylum in Norway.
It’s been all worth it, as the Criterion Collection’s DVD restoration is beautiful; the picture is crisp and clear, though the “unflattering” camera angles take a while to get used to. In fact, practically the whole movie features stark close-ups of ominous-looking characters.
The costumes consist of simple 15th-century robes, while the soundtrack comprises classical Latin and French choruses, thus setting the perfect mood for the era in which The Passion of Joan of Arc takes place.
The widely known story about the trial of Joan of Arc is told here from real transcripts of the event that has inspired countless films, plays, and legends: During the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, a French maiden becomes a lot of trouble to local clerics loyal to the English. Inflamed by the “voice of God,” she begins dressing as a man to fight the enemy, being eventually put on trial for heresy.
In Dreyer’s film, the teenage Joan is played by 36-year-old stage actress Maria Falconetti, whose face continually displays a series of wide-eyed expressions of pain, fear, and bewilderment, as tears stream down her cheeks.
And yet Falconetti is no pitiful creature; in fact, she comes across as a pretty scary Joan. Her androgynous face perfectly captures the tormented character of a young woman consumed by religious fervor.
Sadistic & hypocritical religious institutions
Now, what’s so striking about Joan of Arc’s story is the importance placed on her cross-dressing. For instance, the clerics harass Joan by withholding mass from her as long as she’s dressed as a man. Watching The Passion of Joan of Arc, you get the impression that her attire contributed a great deal to her persecution.
Elsewhere, Dreyer’s use of religious iconography is remarkable – e.g., the scene where Joan is mocked and abused in prison, where she is given a fake crown to wear, one not unlike Jesus’ crown of thorns. Indeed, sadism is ever-present as the court seems to delight in torturing her both mentally and physically.
For Joan, the ultimate agony is being denied the Holy Sacrament. Unless she signs a confession admitting to her “crimes,” she cannot receive the host. That’s one way The Passion of Joan of Arc exposes the hypocrisy of a religious institution that exploits its control over the faithful by offering them salvation – while being free to replace it with damnation whenever they please.
In the end, Joan’s fate is to have her head shaved and be burned alive at the stake. But first she must “eat the bread of sorrow and drink the water of anguish.” Then, looking more masculine than ever, she is led to the pyre to meet her martyrdom.
Summing up, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is one powerful film. It’s more of a horror movie than anything else: The garish close-ups, the anguish, and the torture all amount to terror not only for Joan of Arc but for the audience as well.
It’s no exaggeration when I admit that Joan of Arc’s suffering is so intense in Dreyer’s classic that I felt like I was being tortured right along with her.
The Passion of Joan of Arc / La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer.
Screenplay: Carl Theodor Dreyer & Joseph Delteil.
Cast: Maria Falconetti. Eugene Silvain. André Berley. Maurice Schutz. Antonin Artaud. Michel Simon. Jean d’Yd.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Masterful Cinema” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Movie Review” endnotes
The Passion of Joan of Arc was shot by Rudolph Maté (Foreign Correspondent, Gilda), who had previously collaborated with Carl Theodor Dreyer on Michael (1924, Maté shared cinematography duties with Karl Freund).
Maté and Dreyer would join forces for the third and final time on Vampyr (1932).
Poet and dramatist Antonin Artaud, among whose credits is the screenplay for Germaine Dulac’s 1928 experimental short The Seashell and the Clergyman / La coquille et le clergyman, plays Jean Massieu, the Dean of Rouen, in The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Unofficially the “first surrealist film,” The Seashell and the Clergyman – about the erotic and morbid hallucinations of a priest lusting after a general’s wife – clearly influenced Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s better-known Un Chien Andalou, which came out the following year.
Antonin Artaud spent much of his later life in several mental institutions. He died at age 51 in 1948.
Maria Falconetti The Passion of Joan of Arc image: Gaumont.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Masterful Cinema” last updated in October 2021.