(1928)5Elbert VenturaOne of the undisputed masterpieces of cinema, Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc glows with the fervor of spiritual and aesthetic single-mindedness that is so intense it's almost blinding. With a script culled from the actual proceedings that led to Joan of Arc's burning at the stake, the movie seems an artifact from a lost time. Dreyer imagines the French saint's ordeal as an exalted passage to grace. Insisting that his actors not wear makeup, he captures images of indelible immediacy; Joan's sad, soulful eyes and the craggy faces of her leering inquisitors stay with you. The realism is as much emotional as it is physical. Recognizing that the truth of the story lay less in historical accuracy than in psychological nakedness, Dreyer painted an almost abstract march to martyrdom. The spare, blinding-white set seems stylized, as is Dreyer's high-pitched visual strategy, which relies heavily on close-ups. Frequently, you're left with little but a harsh cascade of them, with no wider shots to ground the action in a given space -- the drama literally transpires across the human face. Holding it all together is Renée Maria Falconetti, in one of the great performances in film history. Her mournful eyes wide with rapture, Falconetti seems under a spell, as is the viewer by her. The performance was too great, so intense that Falconetti never returned in front of the camera again. The movie and her performance have since inspired imitations, most notably in the work of Danish director Lars von Trier, whose melodramas of female suffering seem almost tawdry by comparison. As influential as it is singular, The Passion of Joan of Arc remains many decades later an overwhelming experience and an undiminished tour de force.
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