Almost A Century Old, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc Has Never Looked Better

Joan of Arc

As time flies by, fewer people can get behind devoting their time to watching an old silent film. That’s their loss, because some of the most compelling stories of all time were told in this fashion. Those open-minded enough to indulge in silent cinema should put Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, at the top of their to-watch list.

High controversial when it was initially released, the film was reviled by the Catholic Church, heavily censored, and outright banned in certain countries. Making matters much worse, the original master and a subsequent cut both burned in fires, which meant Dreyer had to re-stitch together an alternate version using more unused footage. Sadly, the director never got to see his original cut until well after this death when another original print was miraculously discovered in 1981.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is in no way a typical biopic (there are plenty of those floating around) but rather a severely intense retelling of the Maid of Orléans’ trial that led to Joan of Arc’s brutal execution for alleged heresy. It’s a deeply spiritual, political, and artful film through and through, arguably the most harrowing of its time.

Shot mostly as unglamorous close-ups of star Renée Falconetti—who had only appeared in one film before this and tragically died before she could appear in a follow up—her sorrowful face has become one of the most iconic visual staples in cinema. There have been stories of Dreyer mistreated Falconetti, and many of his actors, in order to get the fearful performance she delivers so masterfully, but that’s something we may never know for sure. What we do know is Falconetti gave one of the greatest performances in the history of film, regardless of the medium’s lack of sound.

Criterion’s re-release of the film (it was originally out in 1999, so an upgrade was certainly in order) is worthy of a double dip. For starters, we get two versions of the film running at different frame-rates (24 fps and 20 fps). Both versions are valid, with the former being more visually aligned with current day movie-watching. Back in the day viewers were more acclimated to films moving a little faster due to the nature of the camera and projection. If you’re torn between cuts, there’s an extra that includes an audio essay by Danish film historian Casper Tybjerg’s explaining the  defferences, where he admits to favouring the 20 fps version. Those viewing the authentic 24 fps cut will also be able to watch it alongside Tybjerg’s highly informative and somewhat academic commentary track.

Also included is an interview with Composer Richard Einhorn, musicians Adrian Utley and Will Gregory discussing their score, an interview with Falconetti’s daughter, Hélène, a history lesson on the various edited and censored versions of the film prior to its rediscovery, and a variety of behind-the-scenes photos and sketches. It’s basically film school on a round shiny disc.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. Check out a riveting clip below.