Carl Th. Dreyer, along with Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu (the three directors are routinely linked together) are the great mystics of the cinema, dealing with issues of faith, mortality, hope, illusion, and spiritual redemption. Dreyer, a Dane, directed The Passion of Joan of Arc in France in 1928, one of the last great silent films.
Anchored by a mesmeric performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti in the leading role, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film stripped down to its bare essentials, just 82 minutes long, in which the faces of the performers become the real landscape of the work, and sets and props are kept to an absolute minimum. Indeed, it’s really no surprise that Bresson also tackled the Joan of Arc legend in his even more minimalistic Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962).
Falconetti’s Jean is absolutely convinced that her mission comes from God, and nothing that the English judges who persecute her do can persuade her otherwise. To this end, she endures countless hours of cruel interrogation, and in the end, though burned at the stake, her ultimate victory over her tormentors seems absolutely certain.
As Criterion notes of their superb DVD release of the film, the original camera negative for The Passion of Joan of Arc was thought to have been lost in a fire, until — amazingly – “the original version was miraculously found in perfect condition in 1981—in a Norwegian mental institution.” The film is one of those one-of-a-kind experiences that define the art of cinema, and has lost none of its impact nearly a century after its initial release.
Writing in The New York Times on March, 31, 1929, critic Mordaunt Hall commented that “as a film work of art this takes precedence over anything that has so far been produced. It makes worthy pictures of the past look like tinsel shams. It fills one with such intense admiration that other pictures appear but trivial in comparison.” I couldn’t agree more.