I watched Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc two times. Once with Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light” music score as background, and once with complete silence. Suffice to say, Dreyer’s genius, and the utter emotional churning and heartbreak of Maria Falconetti’s magnum opus performance were resilient and just as evocative regardless of which way you decide to see this film. The Passion of Joan of Arc has many times been recounted as the moment that cinema became art. What was the most astounding aspect of this film was its absolute nakedness. With minimal dialogue, being filmed without music and with zero diegetic sound, there is pure structure, composition, framing, and acting. It is the motion picture at its bare-bones foundation.
Dreyer’s work with Falconetti is the support beam and the cement which this film is built on top of. Each scene is a juxtaposition of Falconetti’s rending pain, hopeful joy, and eternal sorrow with the world around her. As the men of the church do all they can put fear, shame and anguish into her heart, forcing her to recant her devotion to God’s mission, we sympathize on an almost metaphysical level with Falconetti’s Joan. The power of Dreyer’s depiction and his cuts between Joan’s reactions and her surroundings pierces any predisposed belief system we have for or against religion. It is a testament to the craft and film form, that Dreyer’s ability to evoke pain and empathy runs across all ideologies to tie us together and react on the level of a unified human suffering; a suffering brought about through injustice and intolerance. We root for Joan the woman, Joan the human being, Joan the martyr of ideas and beliefs and her freedome to believe. We root against a Church which represses her devotion, a most ironic injustice. All of this, seen and felt through a camera and and editing room. Carl Dreyer, with The Passion of Joan of Arc gave us a film that will transcend through time, unfettered, because it speaks to the basis of human unity, and does so with the most artistic and passionate of visions on screen. This is the power of cinema, so clear even at its earliest stages.