Silent cinema at its most sublimely expressive, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece is an austere but hugely affecting dramatisation of the trial of St Joan.
Released as talking pictures were already taking over, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first film in France – the Danish master had previously worked in Scandinavia and Germany – is a remarkably distilled and refined example of silent storytelling. Based on the record of the 15th-century trial and execution of Joan of Arc, the film focuses on an extraordinarily concentrated central performance from Renée Falconetti, allegedly the result of merciless needling from Dreyer during the filming.
Famous for its spare visual style, Dreyer’s film creates compelling drama from its looming facial close-ups, interspersing the plaintive Joan with the penetrating gazes of her zealous inquisitors. Watching the flickers of anguish and resolve across Falconetti’s features, registered in stark detail by Rudolph Maté’s cinematography, is one of cinema’s most purely moving experiences.
“Renée Falconetti gives the most impressive performance ever recorded on film in this silent classic. Carl Theodor Dreyer expanded the potential of the close-up in this chronicle of Joan of Arc’s trial and execution. This “hymn to the triumph of the soul over life”, as Dreyer called it, re-emerges in Vivre sa vie (1962), Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece, in which a devastated Anna Karina watches Joan’s pains in a film theatre and cries with her.” Kaya Genc
“I think it’s in the last decade that Dreyer’s somehow rapturously austere work of historical cinema shifted from being a film that enthralled me as a scholar to one that fully involved and moved me as a viewer – and of course, finally seeing it in an enveloping cinema environment, rather than a university lecture theatre or my own living room, was the instigating factor. You don’t absolutely need to see every crisply restored pore on Falconetti’s extraordinary face to viscerally feel her pain, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.” Guy Lodge
“Simply the best (silent) film about (silent) resistance.” Anton Dolin
“A dream and a nightmare of spiritual ecstasy. Dreyer and his design collaborators create an amalgam of the 14th and 20th centuries, and somehow reach into the future with every stroke. Renée Falconetti’s performance: incomparable, unbeatable, anguished and enough to make an atheist think things over.” Michael Phillips
“A quote from Jean Epstein’s 1921 essay ‘Magnification’ is relevant here: ‘The close-up is an intensifying agent because of its size alone... whatever its numerical value, this magnification acts on one’s feelings more to transform than to confirm them, and personally, it makes me uneasy... The close-up modifies the drama by the impact of proximity. Pain is within reach. If I stretch out my arm I touch you, and that is intimacy. I can count the eyelashes of this suffering. I would be able to taste the tears.‘” Anne Gjelsvik