Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Skuriels Countdown: #5 (tie)

Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928
[14 votes]

"'Je jure de dire la vérité, toute la vérité, rien que la vérité,' swears Joan of Arc at the beginning of Carl-Theodor Dreyer's landmark film of her historic trial for heresy. The film's ambition is, of course, to find truth -- vérité -- in Joan's story. Dreyer worked from historical records of the trial in crafting his film. But deception and, of course, faith are equally important subjects. Battered by trick questions and accusations from the assembled bishops and other ecclesiastics, most of them friendly to the English whom Joan led armies against, the 19-year-old clings to her bare trust in God, symbolized by the shadow of a cross cast on the floor by sunlight passing through an open window that still, somehow, connotes charity, liberty, and vérité.

"Renee Falconetti is mind-bogglingly expressive in the title role, conveying conviction, confusion and abject terror in equal measure. Confident and technically adroit yet open and unpretentiously emotional, it is almost definitely the single greatest performance of the silent era. It is utterly unforgettable. But Dreyer's directorial style and montage are nearly as singular in their achievements. The Passion of Joan of Arc is built almost completely unlike any other film I know. There are no establishing shots. There is no coverage. The 180-degree rule isn't just flouted; it doesn't even apply. This is a story told head on, in close-ups that read the feelings on Joan's face, and that highlight the hard, ugly features, lined faces and matted hair of her inflamed inquisitors. When Dryer's camera gazes on Falconetti's face, it is steady and unwavering. When it tuns on the clergy, it becomes fidgety, swooping forward, tracking from side to side, or panning around as if growing dizzy from too many spins on a carousel. Those men, self-righteous in their behavior but with anything but truth on their minds, are the monsters in this scenario -- but they are also men, behaving as men do. Watching this film, I hate them so.

"Some of the church officials are kind to Joan, it's true, and perhaps the film offers that much of a reason to be optimistic about the influence of good men on a corrupt and self-serving organization. ("You have burned a saint!" cries one spectator at the film's end.) But In depicting so many holy men doing the devil's work, Dreyer's film reminds viewers of the story of Christ as easily as it resonates with the misogyny-tinged show trial that put away the Russian protest band Pussy Riot. This is a work of surpassing sadness and horror, magnificent in its passion and staggering in its emotional power. Like all the great films, it reminds us that some stories never really change." ~ Bryant Frazer

"When delving into a task with as much potential to cause wailing and gnashing of teeth to the dedicated filmgoer as discarding all the countless films one loves in order to choose a greatest film of all time, it is useful to define one’s terms.

"What is film ultimately to the viewer? A storytelling device? A means of self expression? Or simply the greatest lightshow ever invented? All are valid.

"I on the other hand consider film to be primarily a means of communication. The first words in a continuous monologue barely begun. At the risk of crossing the border into romanticism, film is a medium that communicates empathy, not in the general sense that literature does, but with a powerful nearly brutal specificity. Which is why there can be no other pick for the all time greatest film than The Passion Of Joan Of Arc.

"As a portrait of religious grace it is moving, as an example of the artistry of arguably the greatest master of the silent drama it is astonishing. The complexities found both in its form and content outstrip superlatives and could easily fill their own book. But they are not why the film tops my list. Because both of these elements hinge on the audience having, if not a particular worldview, at least a particular set of knowledge. A sympathy for the religious mindset if not a belief in it. Enough of an understanding of film’s evolving grammar to understand how Dreyer’s runs counter to it. Even centering on the mystery and singularity of Maria Falconetti’s performance we somehow miss the point, reducing the film to a one woman show, which it is decidedly not (It is if nothing else at least a dialogue between Falconetti and Dreyer). If we define Joan by what it accomplishes artistically or thematically we’re talking about something that is necessarily limited. But if you talk about what it accomplishes emotionally, as a portrait of one woman’s suffering, one specific woman’s who is ultimately neither Joan nor Falconetti but a synthesis of both, that has been projected to us across time you stumble upon a universality that is stunning. No special knowledge of the art required, no binary theological allegiance, being the owner of a mind and soul half a grade above that of a sociopaths is all that is needed to experience an intensity of feeling that is nigh unbearable.

"This film, made long before any of us were born which will continue to be seen long after we die sends suffering, cruelty, compassion and grace streaming down the years and ages. At the thought of all those who have watched it and all those who will watch it, united in the same wave of empathy and terror I am staggered. When I consider film as a whole past the borders of this single work that awe is exponentially multiplied, to the point where I do not even have the words for what this artform is. Perhaps Joan would simply call it a miracle." ~ Bryce Wilson

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