When I was first asked to watch The Passion of Joan of Arc my experience with silent film was about as limited as my experience with religion, which is to say that both were thoroughly alien to the teenage me and seemed, to put it bluntly, outmoded. Wanting to watch a film about the persecution and torture of a sainted figure seemed patently absurd, and wanting to watch a SILENT film about the same topic? I'd popped in the DVD, readied my finger on the fast forward trigger, and waited for the excuse to run the film at 3x the normal speed. It goes almost without saying, of course, that I never did that, that I've since willingly subjected myself to Carl Theodor Dreyer's searing silent on more than a couple occasions, and that it opened up the possibilities of an overlooked world, of the strength raw images could have without a shred of spoken language.
It seems appropriate to write about this film as an essential now as everyone bickers about the faults and merits of Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, a loud, bawdily melancholic picture in which no one ever shuts up about the bitch of living. Both are stories of ruin, of victims of society whose lives play out like a constant test of limitations by a malevolent god. Hooper frames his solo singing figures in frequent close-ups, and the camera has been accused of getting so close it seems to travel the esophagi of the actors. It's simultaneously a smart decision and a dumb one; smart because it makes practiced use of a variation of a technique Dreyer employed brilliantly, and dumb because it does not understand why that director's shots were so effective. The scene in which Fantine sells her hair seems to mirror Dreyer's masterpiece, and while effective, it reads as comparatively slight. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a depiction of Joan's trial, torture, and eventual martyrdom via execution. For its entire run time, we are drawn into a spartan world of stark contrasts, where plain white walls do not distract or clutter extreme close-ups of our heroine's face and the looming figures of her captors.