Most silent films today endure primarily for their academic value, but The Passion of Joan of Arc remains riveting and vital even without spoken dialogue. The Criterion Collection Blu-ray presents a terrific restoration from the best surviving source, backed with some enlightening bonus features. Highly Recommended.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest silent films ever made, if not the greatest, director Carl Theodor Dreyer's La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) was very nearly lost to history. Controversial upon its release in 1928, the movie was criticized by the Catholic Church, was censored by various government bodies, and was even banned in Britain. Worse, the master negative was destroyed in a fire, forcing Dreyer to assemble a second version of the movie comprised of alternate takes and unused footage, edited as closely to the first version as possible. The negative for that was then destroyed in a second fire, and surviving release prints were subjected to heavy editing and alteration at the hands of censors and misguided restoration efforts.
For decades, the only ways to see the film were in forms its creator had denounced. Dreyer went to his grave believing that his intended version of the movie had been lost forever. Were it not for something resembling divine providence, The Passion of Joan of Arc would exist today only in fragments of its original greatness. Miraculously, in 1981, a complete print of Dreyer's first, uncensored version of the movie was discovered hidden away in, of all places, a storage closet at a mental institution in Oslo, Norway. That print then became the basis for one of the most important resurrections in cinema history.
The film itself is not a traditional bio-pic of its title subject (if there even were such things as traditional bio-pics in 1928). Presuming that viewers already know the history, it spends no time explaining who the real Jeanne d'Arc was or detailing her famed exploits leading battles to drive English invaders out of France. If you need that story told, Hollywood turned it into a sweeping epic starring Ingrid Bergman in 1948, and French pop auteur Luc Besson did a version with Milla Jovovich in 2000. Dreyer, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on the Maid of Orléans' trial for heresy and eventual execution by a tribunal of pro-English judges and clergy. Although compressed for time, much of the film is based on historical transcripts of the real trial, with little narrative embellishment. Viewers are thrust into the heroine's final days with no context for what brought her to that point – not that much is needed. The key ideas that Jeanne is being persecuted for her belief that her actions were ordained by God himself, and is being railroaded as a political scapegoat, come through clearly anyway. Because this is a silent film, dialogue (in the form of intertitles) is used sparingly. The story is told almost exclusively through images and performance.
In recent years, the real Jeanne d'Arc's ecstatic visions have been interpreted as possible signs of mental illness rather than actual holy revelations. Besson's film played with that suggestion, but Dreyer had no such revisionist tendencies. He presents Jeanne simply and directly as a beatific figure, and the movie neither questions nor dwells on her alleged conversations with saints and angels. She believed them to be real, and nothing else matters. Her betrayal by her own king and her treatment from a kangaroo court tribunal were travesties regardless.
For the lead role, Dreyer cast Renée Falconetti (sometimes credited as Maria Falconetti), a stage actress who had only appeared in one film previously and would never do so again afterward. 35 at the time, she was much older than the historical Jeanne, who died at 19. Due to the nature of the material, she makes no attempt to play into the popular image of Jeanne as a fearsome and impulsive warrior, or a figure of unbreakable will and resolve. Instead, her Jeanne is tormented and despairing. At this point in her life, she has nothing left but her faith, which is tested at every moment. The story and its telling are utterly harrowing, but they wouldn't be nearly as effective without Falconetti's riveting portrayal. Legend has it that Dreyer (often a cold and demanding filmmaker) emotionally abused the actress on set to get the intensity he wanted, which of course must be seen as problematic from today's vantage point if true. However, other accounts deny that story, and so much time has passed now that we may never know the truth. Whatever actually drove it, Falconetti's performance has frequently been praised as one of the greatest ever committed to celluloid.
Dreyer stages the action on only a handful of sparse sets with actors wearing simple costumes, photographed primarily in a series of tight, unforgiving close-ups that magnify every tiny expression on each actor's face. The field of view is often narrowed even further by vignetting around the edges of the frame. Rather than limit his visual expressiveness, the director marries this technique to a rapid editing rhythm, swirling camerawork, and stunning montages that still startle in their innovation. This is a work made by an artist in full command of the medium as few others had been or ever would be.
The Criterion Collection released The Passion of Joan of Arc on DVD way back in 1999, which would explain the title's very low spine number of just 62 even on the new upgrade. In the meantime, the film first appeared on the Blu-ray format over in the UK in 2012 as part of Eureka!'s Masters of Cinema line. It has taken Criterion another six years beyond that to provide its own Blu-ray edition for the American market.
The disc comes packaged in one of Criterion's clear keepcases. The included 39-page booklet contains an essay about the film by critic Mark Le Fanu, an introduction written by Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1929, and printed lyrics for the Voices of Light libretto featured on one of the soundtrack options. The disc itself has a very simple, silent menu.
The bonus features on the Criterion disc go into some detail about how miraculous it is that The Passion of Joan of Arc still exists at all, much less that it exists in its original form, fully intact. What's more, the Oslo print remained in excellent condition and had apparently only been projected rarely.
The liner notes in Criterion's booklet are uncharacteristically skimpy with details about the video transfer, other than to mention that it's derived from a restoration performed by French studio Gaumont. My assumption is that Criterion licensed a completed video master and had little or no technical involvement in its creation. Regardless, it looks extraordinary considering the circumstances. The 1.33:1 black-and-white image may be heavily grainy and suffer faint vertical scratches in many scenes, but those issues are hardly distracting. More importantly, it also features excellent grayscale, rich contrast, and an outstanding amount of detail and texture reproduced in breathtaking clarity. The movie is largely comprised of close-up shots, and in most of them you can count every wrinkle, hair, and skin pore.
Criterion also provides two different versions of the movie that run at different frame rates, one at the sound sync speed of 24 fps (encoded in 1080p/24 format) and another at a slower 20 fps (1080i/60Hz). Although both consist of the same footage, the frame rate difference adds 15 minutes to the run time of the latter. Both versions are legitimate. During the silent era, there was no universally standardized projection rate, and in fact the photography may have varied in speed from scene to scene due to the nature of the hand-cranked cameras. Audiences of the day were also accustomed to movies being a little faster and snappier than real life.
Watching both, the 24 fps version looks slightly sped-up (though not overly), while the 20 fps version has motion that looks more natural to a modern eye. However, the change in speed also has significant impact on the tone and pacing of the film, not to mention the choice of very different musical scores timed to each. Arguments can be made in favor of preferring either version over the other.
All intertitle cards in the 24 fps version are in French language and were recreated digitally, while those in the 20 fps version are in Danish and appear to come from the vintage print. The disc defaults to adding optional English subtitles to both.
Like most silent films, The Passion of Joan of Arc was projected with live musical accompaniment in many theaters. However, no record exists of director Dreyer either commissioning or authorizing one definitive score. Over the decades, a number of musicians have contributed scores in a variety of styles, from classical to modernist. Criterion offers three options, two for the 24 fps version of the movie and one for the 20 fps version. The movie can also be played silently at either frame rate if desired.
In my opinion, the best of the musical options is composer Richard Einhorn's 1994 Voices of Light, an operatic libretto that incorporates Medieval writings in the lyrics and the sound of the bell from the actual church where Joan had prayed. The score is sweeping and stirring, and intensifies the story's feelings of both dread and of religious ecstasy.
Also synced for 24 fps playback is a 2010 score by Will Gregory (of the electronica band Goldfrapp) and Adrian Utley (of Portishead). Theirs is very different in style and tone, heavily featuring guitars, drums and synths. It's interesting as an alternative, especially in the ways it emphasizes different parts of the story, but the modern sound is a little jarring played over the period setting.
At 20 fps, the only choice is a piano score by Mie Yanashita, composed in 2005. It's the most traditional score, and perhaps even the most akin to something that could have been heard in 1928. Some of the music is very lovely, but it misses the intensity of either other option and, combined with the slower playback speed, the tone feels a little too low-key.
The Einhorn track is encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format and sounds rich and enveloping. Both the Gregory/Utley and Yanashita scores are PCM stereo. All have excellent fidelity.
The Blu-ray carries over the audio commentary from Criterion's 1999 DVD, but the other features are technically new (though some may have overlap with content from the DVD).
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
Criterion's 1999 DVD also included different production notes, more information about Voices of Light, and an interactive essay about Joan's trial and the film's production. Some of this information may have made its way into the Blu-ray's newer features in other forms.
The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray from the UK offered an avante-garde score by Loren Connors, the complete "Lo Duca" version of the film, and a 100-page book filled with essays and photos.
Whether or not you have any personal religious convictions, Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc is a cornerstone work of filmmaking art that deserves to be revisited often. Considering the movie's complicated history, the Criterion Blu-ray offers an almost unbelievably good video restoration, a choice of two different playback speeds and three different musical scores, and some very worthwhile supplements. This disc belongs in any serious film lover's collection.