Watching Old Movies: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

1928

 

Highest Grossing Film: The Singing Fool (a follow up to the Jazz Singer)- $5,916,000

Best Picture: None (Early Academy Award Ceremonies weren’t actually based on calendar years, so the schedule is somewhat screwy right now.)

 

What happened this year?

Pretty interesting year, actually. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, Herbert Hoover became president, construction was approved for the Boulder Dam (which would be later renamed the Hoover Dam, in case you’re wondering why I bring it up), Amelia Earhart became the first woman to successfully make a transatlantic flight, the world’s first colour television transmission was demonstrated and sliced bread was invented! (Well, okay, machine-sliced bread, but damn it, it still counts.

Famous births include Walter Mondale, Maya Angelou, Shirley Temple, Che Guevara, Stanley Kubrick, Andy Warhol, James Coburn, Roddy McDowall, Ennio Morricone and the beloved late Adam West.

Meanwhile, in France, director Carl Theodore Dreyer was teaming up with stage actress Maria Falconetti to bring what many call the last great silent movie of the era…

 

The Passion of Joan of Arc

 

1200px-The_Passion_of_Joan_of_Arc_(1928)

Plot:  A dramatisation of the trial of Joan of Arc after her capture by the English. Joan must defend her messages and faith in God in the face of a hostile audience who want nothing more than to see her discredited in the eyes of the people. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end great for her.

Trivia: None of the actors wear any make-up, which was unheard of in the silent era. Carl Theodor Dreyer thought this lent strength to the characters’ faces. Much of the project’s budget was reserved for the expensive sets, although Dreyer used so many close-ups that very little of the actual sets are seen.

Helped Inspire: Modern acting as we know it.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Okay, Imma start this off by saying something that I think’ll probably be a bit controversial? Specifically that, in spite of this being the ‘last great silent movie’ of the era, I really think this movie should’ve been a talkie instead.

Don’t get me wrong, the silent direction has a lot of strengths to it. The use of close-ups to create a sense of claustrophobia and really emphasise the grotesqueness and corruption compared to the purity of Joan, a lot of that stuff works really well. But it doesn’t really change the fact that about 80% of the movie is people talking back and forth to one another and that’s really not a format that excels in the silent movie form. The movie works hard to try and convey the maximum amount of meaning in each expression and answer, but it doesn’t always work and I’m just left wondering what each character said to make the others react like that (if the title cards aren’t around.)

As for Maria Falconetti’s famous performance, I did like it a lot… but I have some issues with it. The thing is, Falconetti clearly brings 110% to almost every moment she’s onscreen which, yeah, is great, but does feel a little much at some points. When a scene or reaction feels like it should be relatively low-key, seeing Falconetti on the brink of tears and looking emotional as hell almost actively works against the movie at times. Don’t get me wrong, when it fits, it fits really well and brings an astounding amount of emotion to the character and the movie, but when it doesn’t, she just kinda feels like she’s being over-the-top and detracting from the scene.

Okay, now that I’ve finished poking holes in the sacred cow, I will say that, like Metropolis, I did really like the movie. As mentioned, Falconetti’s performance really is brilliant when it works and a lot of the visual storytelling and narrative is really neat. And the burning scene at the end is really outstanding stuff comparable to the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin. So, I will definitely say I liked it a lot. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling it really could’ve benefited from waiting a few years until talkies properly became a thing. Although, then again, maybe Falconetti had a really weird sounding voice, so who knows. Anyway, I’ll still give this a strong B+.

 

Rankings:

  1. Battleship Potemkin- A+/A
  2. Sherlock Jr- A
  3. The Adventures of Prince Achmed- A-
  4. Nosferatu – B+
  5. The Passion of Joan of Arc – B+
  6. Metropolis – B+
  7. Safety Last – B+
  8. The Goat (1921) – B+
  9. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) – B-/C+
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