The power of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s riveting masterpiece doesn’t come from beautiful scenery or a sweeping score. Instead, The Passion of Joan of Arc is nothing but the bare bones of a historical epic. It is interesting to take note of the smooth, barren walls and ceilings in which the indoor scenes are filmed. The costumes as well, though authentic, are equally boring to look at, establishing the film as the complete, polar opposite of the visual delight, Gone With the Wind. Even without intricate wallpaper designs and fancy props, it is captured in innovative close-ups that show more detailed faces and expressions than one is ever likely to see again.
All of the elements in Dreyer’s film add up to exactly what he set out to make: a documentation of an essential event in the history of France. Anything that should distract from its purpose (movie stars, special effects, extravagant sets, etc.) was not included. Dreyer’s refusal to dress up his story not only makes The Passion stand out, it elevates it to the status of an all time great. Anyone who knows anything about silent films should be familiar with the face of Maria Falconetti. Her incredible performance as Joan of Arc, a Frenchwoman executed for claiming to be called by God to save France, is one of the most powerful ever put to film. When considering how silent films had to resort to images alone to express emotion, the success of such a plain film as Joan of Arc may seem like a mystery… until one looks into the eyes of Maria Falconetti and finds all the reasons why.