The Silence and the Fury: The Passion Of Joan of Arc At 90

by John Biscello

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” — Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

If I had to choose one face as the truest and most magnetic testament to Miss Desmonds proud claim, that face would belong to Renee Maria Falconetti in the 1928 classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Falconetti, who was a stage actress and comedienne (Joan of Arc was Falconetti’s only major film role, and her final one) delivered what you might call a virtuoso facial performance, unparalleled in its plasticity of range and soul-felt expressiveness. Or in the words of the late film critic, Roger Ebert, “You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti.”

Interestingly, the version which is considered the definitive one owes its exposure to a quirk of fate. In December 1928, the original negative was destroyed in a fire at a Berlin film studio. Carl Theodore Dreyer, the film’s director, went on to a cut a new version, yet the second negative was also destroyed in a film lab fire (common occurrences during those days of highly flammable nitrate film stock). Fast forward to 1936, when Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinèmathèque Francaise — the film “church” of cinefiles and the incubator of the French new wave — discovers an incomplete print of the film, which is the only version available for screening, until 1952, when French film writer, Lo Duca, finds a second negative thought to have been destroyed in the second fire. This higher-quality and more complete version is re-issued in the 1950s, with a score by Albioni, Bach, Vivaldi and Scarlatti (Dreyer, who had never selected an “official” score for the film, vehemently protested Lo Duca’s version). The film’s protean genesis doesn’t stop there, with different versions making their way into film archives around the globe, and then, in 1981, Fate played her redeeming hand, when a print of the original film was found during a clean-up at a mental hospital in Oslo, Norway. It seems that, not unlike the Maid of Orleans herself, fire couldn’t put an end to a legacy marked for enduring appraisal.

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To read Biscello’s full discussion on The Passion of Joan of Arc, go to Riot Material magazine:

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