29 May 2024

The Passion of Joan Arc Blu-Ray Review

Made in 1928 by the legendary Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc has recently been remastered by Eureka Entertainment for its Masters of Cinema Range. It had previously only been available to English-speaking viewers as a Criterion release. The film charts the final days of Joan of Arc: her trial, the suffering she went through physically and mentally, and obviously ends with her execution by being burned at the stake for being a witch.

The film is truly relentless throughout. The Masters of Cinema DVD includes 97- and a 84-minute versions; the difference between the two is the frame rate (speed), not the footage. The release also includes the Lo Duca version, which was the cut most widely distributed and was famously used in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie (1962), probably the first introduction most people have had to this film. This was the version most people will have seen until the complete cut was found in, fittingly enough, in a Danish mental hospital in 1981.

The actress who plays Joan of Arc, Maria Falconetti, is seen here in her second and last film role. She was mostly known as a stage actress and her presence is stagey: she speaks little, but there are extraordinary close-ups of her eyes throughout the film. However, it is probably one of the five greatest performances ever committed to film. Unlike Florence Delay in Robert Bresson’s later attempt to film the Joan of Arc story, Falconetti has a shaven head (this is one of the biggest flaws of Bresson’s film as it is historically inaccurate.) The also includes Antonin Artaud as the monk Massiou. Artaud later stated the film was meant to reveal Joan as a victim of one of the most terrible perversions of justice committed by state or church.

When the film came out it was very controversial in France, partly because Dreyer was Danish and not Catholic, and partly because of the rumoured casting of Lillian Gish as Joan. Gish was then most well known for her role in Birth of a Nation (she later in life starred in Night of the Hunter) It was edited by the Archbishop of Paris and government censors against Dreyer’s will, leaving the director very angry.

The Passion of Joan of Arc clearly owes some debt to German expressionism, which was even more obvious in Dreyer’s next film, Vampyr (1932). Visually it is certainly the greatest silent film ever made due to the lead performance and the incredible set designs. It was shot by Rudolph Maté, who later became very well known for his work as a film noir director, most notably D.O.A. (1950), and also shot for Hitchcock, Welles and Lubitsch. Paul Schrader has praised “the architecture of Joan’s world, which literally conspires against her; like the faces of her inquisitors, the halls, doorways, furniture are on the offensive, striking, swooping at her with oblique angles, attacking her with hard-edged chunks of black and white.”

This is a film that should be watched continuously, so it is gratifying that it is now available on home video again. It was voted into the top 10 in the Sight and Sound critics’ greatest films poll in 2012, and has recently been shown at the Leeds Film Festival and elsewhere with a live score. If you are a major fan like me, you may also want to have the Criterion version, which has the superior “Voices of Light” score (one of many scores that have been composed for it over the years.) Dreyer never selected a definitive score for The Passion of Joan of Arc, so unlike some other films of that era (such as Nosferatu and Metropolis) it was left open to interpretation by classical and pop composers – there have been many scores made, even one by Nick Cave.

Ian Schultz


Rating: PG
Re-Release BD/DVD Date: 26th November 2012 (UK&Ireland)
Directed ByCarl Theodor Dreyer
Cast Maria FalconettiEugene Silvain , André Berley
Buy The Passion of Joan Arc: Blu-ray / DVD / Double Play (Blu-ray + DVD) – Steelbook

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