It has been said that you do not know silent films until you recognise the face of Renée Falconetti in the title role of Le Passion De Jeanne d’Arc. As someone who had already seen the likes of Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Sunrise, Metropolis and The Battleship Potemkin this is something I always took with a pinch of salt, but I think I know more what they mean now.
To be honest, silent films have a soporific effect on me. The fact that the spotlight of attention is so clearly focussed on sight rather than it being allowed to flit between sight and sound usually makes me drowsy around the hour mark. Only Metropolis has avoided this, and that was because of the great variability of the score.
Sadly, La Passion De Jeanne d’Arc did begin to have this effect on me around the hour mark so I had to take a short break before returning to it. This was with the best will in the world because La Passion De Jeanne d’Arc is easily the best silent movie that I have ever seen, and this is all due to the amazing central performance of Renée Falconetti (in her only major film role).
I went into this expecting more of a biography of Jeanne d’Arc’s life; instead this is all about her trial by the English in occupied France up until her martyrdom. The great thing about this is that the director is therefore able to present as factual an account as he is able to since we are not at all dealing with her visions, just the aftermath. As such, he does not force any religious point of view on the audience. He just confronts us with a 19 year old girl (here played by someone clearly older) who is being sentenced to death by the clergy since she refuses to say her visions were sent by the devil.
Now, this could be damning of the church, but in a way it isn’t. In the opening trial a clergyman is basically carted off for saying Jeanne is a saint. Too, there is another priest who, whether he believes her or not, desperately tries to help her stay alive and even remains by her giving as much comfort as he can during her immolation.
In many ways it is a film of religious grey areas that neither confirms or denies that she was the messenger of God. Too this is a film where you can not wholly hate the establishment that has condemned her since they constantly offer her a way to get out alive and she refuses to take them since she thinks of herself as living in a state of grace. The only real bad guys are the English, and in film history it usually IS a safe bet to do so unless there are any Russians involved. An astonishing film.