Friday, October 2, 2009

Silent but Deafening 01: The Passion of Joan of Arc


Apologies for the cheesy title. The silent film is an abandoned art form. With few exceptions, filmmakers all but dropped it with the advent of synch sound. While it seemed "talkies" were merely a technological and logical upgrade of their predecessors, what was lost was a unique experience. The responsibility of storytelling weighed heavily on the actors non-verbal performance, shot choice, lighting and set design. The title plates intercut between shots often set up the scene or provided a textual dialogue, but good filmmakers knew that this abrupt break from the scene psychologically took the audience away, and used it only when necessary. The style, compared to early sound pictures varied greatly. Because converse to the cliched adage, a word is worth a thousand pictures and an actor could sum up the story, or his/her emotion or reveal motivations with just a sentence. Also, scenes were tethered to the then-stationary microphones capturing the sound. And, because the cameras were bulky and noisy, camera moves were almost out of the question. The film industry obviously adapted and created new technology to overcome these tragic faults, however the modern movie experience, while often still rich and artful, is a very different from medium than it's silent roots.

So that was my attempt at prefacing a new "column." We'll see how long it, or even this blog lasts.


One of my favorite films, silent or otherwise, is Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (La passion de Jeanne d'Arc). The French-produced film is based on the transcripts of the trial, torture and eventual execution of Joan of Arc. The entire story is told almost exclusively with close-ups of the actors. Ordinarily, I wouldn't think this would work as well as it did (close-ups can be very effective, however, it's the dynamic between mixed compositions that makes them effective. It's like metal band that's all solos, or a hardcore band that's all breakdowns...wait, that sounds pretty gnarly). The entire film is intense and emotionally exhausting. Renee Maria Falconetti plays the titular role with such emotion, it's one of the best performances from an actor in cinema's history (no hyperbole). What's even more amazing is that, with the exception to two short, rather unknown films, this is Ms. Falconetti's only major role in film (she was primarily a stage actress). Yet she plays to the medium so uncommonly well, with a subtlety that was rare among most silent film actors.


The film is amazing by it self, no doubt. However the mythos surrounding the film only adds to it's place in history. After initial views the French archbishop, outraged, requested changes be made. The British outright banned the film for it's portrayal of it's 15th century soldiers. Horrifically the master print was burned. Dreyer attempted to piece together an alternative version with outtakes--this must've been the version that most audiences had seen for decades. Inexplicably, a full film print version of the original, as it was intended, was found in the janitor's closet of a Norwegian insane asylum in 1981. Woah, 60 years. Typically film degrades over time, especially older film stocks, if not preserved properly in a climate controlled area, yet the print, at least what I've seen (the Criterion DVD, a VHS copy and a TCM viewing) looks stunning.

The film is available from the Criterion Collection. Watch it. And, even thought the film was intended, by Dreyer, to be seen without musical accompaniment, the score on Criterion's version is great.

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