Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan if Arc is my favourite film, pretty much bar none. Although I suspect very concept of a favourite film is in itself a bit ridiculous -- clearly pinning down what you consider to be the 'best' is a question anyone who teaches or studies Film or English most likely dislikes being asked for all the ways in which it we feel it challenges us to say what's expected, what intellectually defines us and pins our taste down in a single sentence open to swift judgement. So much so that I always begin seminars with any new class by asking them to admit to (and revel in) what they consider to be their most embarrassing pet love, not the obscure art house text they think will make them look widely viewed, appropriately cultured in obscurity (and thus potentially that much more attractive to the geekier members of the opposite sex...).
However, despite this -- turns out, this IS my favourite film, one that I constantly circle back to and one that just kind of stays there under your skin. And the reasons why circulate further around its somewhat romantic exhibition history and status as film history artefact as much as its excessively beautiful, haunting and emotionally draining portrayal of faith on trial showcasing one of the greatest and most obscure performances in cinema.
Dreyer's film, which focuses upon the record of Joan's trial, was equal parts critically successful to financially disastrous upon its initial release, and its immediate history saw a series of cuts and mishaps and made the original a rare and eventually ‘lost’ commodity (the original negative was lost to a studio fire at UFA). Dreyer's attempted restructuring from a few remaining original prints was then again lost to fire in 1929 (bad fire times all round). Since then, the original film was considered lost entire, until, bizarrely canisters containing the film were found in a cleaning cupboard mental institution in Oslo in the 1980s. After three years at the Norwegian Film Institute the reels were finally examined and found to be Dreyer's original cut.
Reclaimed, frequently screened at film festivals, given a DVD release and now a part of numerous film syllabuses, the film really does live again in multiple forms.
What I personally want to flag up in contrast with Carrie's response below is the influence of the contemporary score commissioned for the reclaimed film-- which has a major influence upon the film is experienced in contrast to the live accomplishment you will witness with silent screenings at many festivals and events (a great number of diverse contemplate scores have been written for the film since the late 1989s, including Live accompaniments by the likes of Nick cave and Cat power). The power of Richard Einhorn's 1994 oratorio based on the film entitled "Voices of Light" (available as an optional accompaniment on the Criterion Collection's DVD release) is rather difficult to put in to words, but the richness and fullness of the soundscape works in startling compositions and contrasts with the sparse nature of Dreyer's images, the intensity of his compositions that blank all else out against the frantic eyes of Renée Falconetti in the film's relentless succession of tight, unforgiving close ups as Joan response to each stage of her interrogation. Watch it with the score, watch it without -- experience it every way you can, because this is a text that grows and changes each time it's encountered, and one that carries with it it's bizarre history of reclamation and restoration that remains just as oddly intoxicating in the overall experience as the film itself.
(Carrie Smith)I recently attended a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc at Birmingham Cathedral as part of the Flatpack Cinema Festival -http://www.flatpackfestival.org.uk/event/the-passion-of-joan-of-arc/ The film was introduced by Paul Shallcross, a pianist who had written a score to accompany it. In his introduction he chose to stress the film’s timelessness. He mentioned that the sets gesture towards medieval simplicity, yet the soldiers wear helmets which look similar to those worn in World War One. He also highlighted the brief incongruent appearance of 1920s plastic spectacles.
Despite the film’s damning portrayal of the Catholic Church, to watch it in Birmingham Cathedral felt entirely appropriate. The cathedral’s high vaulted ceilings, columns, religious paintings etc made you feel that the bishops were about to enter from stage left. The image of the light through the window creating a crucifix on the floor of Joan’s cell was echoed in the stained glass window of the cathedral which was directly behind the screen. The acoustics of the cathedral meant that the score reverberated around the audience. The walls seemed to lean inwards towards Renée Maria Falconetti’s expressive face at the centre of the space.
Too often, perhaps, films are confined to being watched in the archives and do not have the opportunity to be shown in spaces which can add new meaning and relevance. Dreyer’s film about intolerance felt like it was interacting with modern questions in a real setting and I would applaud Birmingham Cathedral for agreeing to the screening. It would be wonderful to see more silent films present beyond the archive in a living space and in doing so, able to reach larger audiences.