Monday, December 6, 2010

The Passion of Joan of Arc

In November 2008, I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc. I recall the event well. The theater was near sellout. I had to sit in the front of the theater. I was one row behind the choral singers. There was an orchestra and a hundred or so choral singers. They took up the the first three or four rows of the theater. They performed Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light which was specifically composed to accompany The Passion of Joan of Arc. I cannot recall which organization the singers were from.

They had a program handout which was very informative. The front page gave some background on Einhorn and his composition. The other side talked about the history of the film. The Passion of Joan of Arc was thought to be a lost film. The original version was thought lost when a fire destroyed the master negative. Director Carl Theodore Dreyer reassembled the film from outtakes. This was the only extant version until the early 1980s when a copy of the original version was found in a Danish mental assylum.

At the time, I was very impressed with the film and score even though I didn't write about it. That has more to do with time constraints than enthusiasm.

On December 2, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival partnered with the PFA to present The Passion of Joan of Arc at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. The live accompaniment was conducted by Mark Sumner, performed by the women of UC Berkeley’s Perfect Fifth as the voice of Joan of Arc, tenor soloist Daniel Ebbers, baritone Martin Bell, the University of California Alumni Chorus, UC Men’s and Women’s Chorales, and a twenty-two piece orchestra.

The Passion of Joan of Arc starring Maria Falconetti; directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer; silent with intertitles; with live accompaniment; (1928)

Let me start by saying that I think the Paramount is the most elegant theater I've been in. Built in 1931, the Paramount was designed by Timothy Pflueger who also designed the Castro Theater in San Francisco (built in 1922). Whereas the Castro has a Spanish Baroque theme, the Paramount is Art Deco which is more to my personal taste. The Paramount also has a larger seating capacity than the Castro so the interior is more imposing. The Paramount was completely rennovated in early 1970s so the interior is more modern than the Castro which has been in continuous use since its opening. The Paramount doesn't have daily events so it gets a lot less wear and tear than the Castro.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is universally acknowledged as one of the most influential films of all time. The plot condenses the trial of Joan of Arc into a 90 minute film. The film looks unique today but must have been particularly revolutionary in 1928. The first thing I noticed were the extreme close-ups. Dreyer had the actors who played Joan inquistors not wear make-up so you see the flaws in the complexion and craggy faces. Sergio Leone would use the same technique to great effect in his Spaghetti Westerns. I remember reading that Oliver Stone used the same trick when shooting JFK. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, the close-ups and lack of make-up give the actors a grotesque and ominous appearance to match their actions.

In addition, Dreyer frequently filmed Joan of Arc (played by Maria Falconetti) from a down camera angle to convey to the audience the submissive position she was in. Dreyer would force Falconetti to kneel for hours on hard stone floors until her knees ached and she was exhausted. Through this "proto-method" acting device, Falconetti physical anguish and fatigue showed in her portrayal of Joan.

The film had a noticeable dearth of establishing shots and long shots. Combined with the sparse sets, the effect was to give the film an austere look which focused the audience's attention on the actor's faces. The ordeal of Joan's scourging was made more personal that way. The title not only refers to Joan's inner passions to serve God and defeat the British but also call to mind the Passion plays depicting Christ's final days.

Everyone raves about Falconetti's performance and rightly so. Her eyes convey fear and confusion as well as anything I recall seeing on celluloid. However, Falconetti needed someone to play against. This was the true inspiration on Dreyer's part. The actors cast as Joan's judges and prison guards were outstanding in conveying their malevolence and contempt. There weren't any scenes to establish the character's names so I cannot single out any of the credited actors. That's just as well since all their performances were worthy of praise.

In 2008, I was most impressed by Einhorn's score. It had sufficient gravitas for the trial of Joan of Arc. Slightly evocative of Carmina Burana, Voices of Light was less robust than the Gregorian chants. It perfectly conveyed the inner turmoil of Joan. At the Paramount performance, Voices of Light was still effective but not quite as impressive as before. Perhaps it was due to having heard the performance before.

I'm glad to report that The Passion of Joan of Arc stood up well to a second screening. I wonder how the film would fare with an alternate score.

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