10 July 2011

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" Norma Desmond Presumably Referencing "The Passion of Joan of Arc"

There's too much talking in talking pictures. Some films, His Girl Friday (1940) comes to mind, are rich in wonderful, witty dialogue. But most movies made these past 80 years feature far more extraneous and not incidentally cliched conversation. Shut up already.

That's one of the reasons why it is such an absolute joy to watch Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) which was made right at the end of the silent era. No one before or since, and I include the likes of Chaplin and Bergman, ever utilized faces better than Dreyer did. We also see here perhaps the finest example of German expressionistic film.

In the Passion of Joan of Arc we mostly see the face of Maria Falconetti who was a noted stage actress both before and after the film. In fact she never appeared on screen again. Why not quit while your ahead? It's a performance that has been called the greatest ever and I'm not prepared to argue against it. In any case she owes a lot to Dreyer who knew how to frame a host, especially one of a face, like Michael Jordan knew hitting jump shots. But she brought a lot to the film, telling us so much, with nary a word. Faces!

Passion is a fascinating film because it is so depressing. And not. It is, like all great works of art, ultimately uplifting and exciting and thus exhilarating. Of course Joan of Arc was the quintessential martyr and viewed as such her story is anything but depressing. There have been numerous versions of her story told on film, many replete with action hero type battle scenes, and none carries the emotional wallop of Dreyer's telling. And his is mostly comprised of the trial.

All these wonderful shots of faces and they are all sans make up. Often shown in extreme close up, shot from below, cut away from and back to quickly and lit in grays rather than sharp black and whites.

In fact there is an often disorienting style in the setting up of shots that serves to emphasize the madness, for Joan especially, of the entire proceedings. It's interesting to note the detail of the sets and how important they are to the picture, yet what a secondary role they play to the faces.

It all comes together for an amazing film. It seems counterintuitive to use words to describe The Passion, it is better seen then described. You can watch on You Tube, Hulu Plus or Nextflix or, of course rent it.


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