I/Eye: On Photography

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Posted in Uncategorized by Sheila Newbery on December 20, 2010

Imagine walking down an ordinary street in an ordinary city on an ordinary day. You turn the corner and suddenly without warning, you find yourself staring at the Taj Mahal. It was with that same sense of utter amazement and wonder that I watched Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” for the first time. —Richard Einhorn, composer

Falconetti in the title role of "The Passion of Joan of Arc"

Falconetti in the title role of "The Passion of Joan of Arc"

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience a few weeks ago: the chance to see a screening of Carl Dreyer’s masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, at the Paramount Theater (Oakland, CA), performed with Richard Einhorn’s score,  Voices of Light, complete with soloists, orchestra and a chorus of 200 voices (conducted by Mark Sumner, with women of the University of California, Berkeley’s vocal ensemble Perfect Fifth as the voice of Joan of Arc, tenor soloist Daniel Ebbers and baritone Robert Stafford, the University of California Alumni Chorus, and the UC Men’s and Women’s Chorales.)

Ensconced in a 20th-century monument to cinematic splendor — the golden interior flickers sumptuously in the reflected light of the screen — we jaded 21st-century movie-goers were the perfect foil for the film’s harrowing descent: the standing ovation at the end proof of our awe at the brilliant concision of Dreyer’s visual style, undiminished for having reached us from the seemingly distant era of mass extinction that was the passing of silent film.

Visually speaking, the film is built almost entirely on the graphical force and clarity of its portraits. It seems less interested in establishing a cinematic sense of space or narrative than in immersing us in the interrogators’ escalating malevolence — and the spectacle of Joan’s afflicted courage — conveyed primarily as an inescapably frightening sequence of still-but-moving, moving-but-still faces. I can’t think of a film that has traded so much of the moving camera’s versatility (to describe and include) in favor of such prolonged, rapt stillness. Renée Falconetti’s unforgettable face is the film’s anchor and unifying principle: alternately illumined by insane courage or sinking with exhaustion, its waves of inspiration and despair are charted with an unwavering intensity of austere camera work.

The score is confident in its idiom and as powerful in preparing us for what follows as Dreyer’s camera. Near the climax of Joan’s ordeal, for example, the music bears witness with an eerie, hovering delicacy: an exposed soprano solo, absent any orchestral elaboration. And then the explosive final scenes are upon us. Had Dreyer heard Richard Einhorn’s score performed in this setting, he might have reconsidered his preference for viewing the Passion in silence.

One Response

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  1. Britt Ascher said, on December 20, 2010 at 2:26 am

    Beautifully written, Sheila. I hope to experience this some day.

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