Has there ever been an acting performance like Renée Jeanne Falconetti's in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Quite possibly the best and most landmark acting ever captured on film, her role as Joan is the standard by which all performances, silent or sonorized, will be judged. Her face, soft yet ravaged and wild, looks less like a person's and more like a portrait come to life.
Indeed, the weight of the film rests on Falconetti's face. Though Dreyer constructed a large set to use for Joan's trial, you'll never see it in the film. There are no establishing shots (and very few long shots, for that matter). Instead, he uses chiefly close-ups, low angle shots of the intimidating judges and guards and high angle ones that cast Joan as both intimidated and eternally genuflecting for God.
Dreyer used the actual texts of Joan's trial for the film, condensing her 29 cross-examinations and torture into a single inquisition. The judges, Frenchmen loyal to the British cause, angrily demand she explain herself and attempt to shame her. But Falconetti's often blank expressions convey a woman beyond caring. I'm always a bit wary about people who claim to speak with God, especially those who claim God told them to kill people, but if ever I believed anyone it'd be Joan.
Whether or not she really did communicate with the Lord is more or less irrelevant. The point is she transcended faith and entered the realm of pure conviction. And it terrified her judges. These sanctimonious hypocrites, cast in stark blacks and whites, shout from their pulpits that Joan is a heretic, but they simply cannot believe that God would manifest Himself to a mere girl. They claim to speak for God, but they do so for political and personal gain. Yet here kneels a woman who has certainly been used as a rallying cry for the cause of others, but who cares only for the message she's been sent.
Dreyer meanwhile casts Falconetti in softer shades of gray. Her face captures a rage of emotions from fear to righteous anger to a Zen-like forgiveness of her persecutors. Dreyer made great use of recent breakthroughs in photography that could capture the image better, allowing photography that did not require great deals of makeup for clarity. Thus, he forced Falconetti to kneel for hours, without any makeup to assist her, and shot take after take.
He drove her to a nervous breakdown in order to capture her with expressions that conveyed inner turmoil without letting it bleed into outward expressions. I cannot say I condone driving an actor mad for your own gain, but I also cannot deny that he succeeded. Falconetti, who had only starred in a minor film before this and never acted on screen again, is eternally enshrined in the annals of film history for her work here.
But equally as important as Falconetti's performance is Dreyer's incredible camera work. Even though it works mainly in close-ups, Dreyer tracks, zooms, tilts, pans; it's almost like watching a silent Scorsese movie. He keeps the camera ever-moving in order to add to the sense of unsettlement that Falconetti's haunting face conjures. Dreyer mixes the realism of his actors' natural faces with dashes of expressionism here and there with his lighting and movements and creates a wholly unique film that conveys the spiritual in ways I've never seen any other movie do as successfully.
I'm surprised more Christian groups don't show this on a regular basis. I remember my pastor (back when I had to go to church) encouraging families to go see that awful, exploitative Passion of the Christ years ago, but no one's ever brought up this gem. Joan's story has more than a few parallels with Christ's, and Dreyer captures the pure faith of a true believer better than anyone. Only Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, which tackles spirituality from the opposite angle (of a man torn and unsure of his faith) comes remotely close to the haunting poignancy of this silent masterpiece.