The Passion of Joan of Arc
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Written by Carl Theodor Dreyer & Joseph Delteil
The Toronto Silent Film Festival got off to an impressive start at Innis Hall on Thursday night, as a packed room experienced the inspired fusion of two complementary works of art, created 85 years apart. One of the most exciting things about silent films is their tantalizingly protean quality, thanks to the conditions under which they were produced. What might once have been considered a weakness (especially from the point of view of an autocratic auteur intent upon controlling every aspect of the production) has now become a source of strength. Because they rely upon the kindness of musical strangers in order to come fully into being, silent films have an open-endedness to them which makes them infinitely more available (at least in some ways) to contemporary audiences than classic films made on the other side of the “talkie” revolution. Thursday’s screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc, which featured the world premiere of a powerfully nuanced score composed and performed by double-bassist Tom Peters (aided and abetted by fellow chamber musician Joëlle Morton), offers a decided case in point.
One of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s most intense works, this extraordinary chronicle of the last hours of history’s most famous pietist and proto-feminist puts the lie to the (generally quite reasonable) filmmaker’s axiom which states that close-ups ought to be used sparingly in order to achieve the maximum emotional impact. In shooting a film that is, essentially, one gigantic close-up, Dreyer crafted an unprecedentedly subjective piece of cinema. Instead of relying upon kinetic Griffithian cross-cutting or ingeniously constructed tracking shots, Dreyer (with the help of cinematographer Rudolph Maté) simply traces the tracks of the tears that spill out of his star’s unforgettable eyes, held taught by the impossible tension they somehow manage to maintain between the absolute serenity of a saint and the abject terror of a young woman thrown to the patriarchal wolves. Dreyer is an actor’s director, and he never had a better collaborator on the other side of the camera than Renée Falconetti, whose cinematic career began and ended with this film. Together, these two artists pull off a miracle every bit as spectacular as the ones that the titular character was supposed to have performed on the battlefields of France – i.e. they make 20th (and now 21st) century viewers invest their emotions not only in the pitiable spectacle of a vulnerable person seemingly crushed under by alternately sneering, snoring or even, occasionally, sniffling Pontius Pilates (a situation that anyone who has suffered at the hands of bureaurats can understand, at least to some extent), but also in the psychodrama that plays out in those eyes as Joan struggles to remain faithful to her conception of a personal relationship with her God that very few of even our most devout religious adherents would recognize today.
It is in deepening our experience of that second layer of drama that Peters’ score achieves its most stunning effects. Throughout most of the film, and especially during the more dialogic parts of Joan’s trial (derived, Dreyer’s introduction tells us, from the actual Medieval transcripts), the music has the quality of a deep, steady heartbeat – providing a vital reminder that the protagonist’s chief concern is not to defend her body against her implacable accusers, but to protect her faith and her spiritual lifeline to her “Father” against the frailties of that very same body, which, she fears, might cause her to perjure her soul (by “confessing” to crimes she knows she has not committed) when subjected to physical duress. When she finally does ratify this grim expectation by signing the Churchmen’s prepared statement, the live strings go dead, replaced by recorded metallic beats which sound like all of the gates of Heaven clinking shut in Joan’s tortured face. It comes as a very strange kind of relief, then, when Joan finds the courage to recant her confession and go to the stake, accompanied by the tragic, but defiantly alive, throb of the musicians’ instruments. Peters’ score completes Dreyer and Falconetti’s definitive intepretation of a human being’s struggle to maintain her integrity against overwhelming external and internal pressures.
The Toronto Silent Film Festival continues Friday, April 5th with a showing of Ozu’s Tokyo Chrous at the Carlton Cinema. You can read the full schedule here.