Tuesday, September 12, 2006


One day I saw an article in a film magazine citing the greatest female performances in movie history. The performance by Maria Falconetti in this silent film was at the top of the list. Being only slimly familiar with silent film, I was puzzled and intrigued by this bold proclamation. The greatest performance by a woman ever ? Really? I put it on my netflix rental queue intending to watch it when I got to it.

My father called me last week to inform that the film was going to be playing on TCM and that I should give it a watch. So I did. Interestingly, in the film's introduction, it was stated that Maria Falconetti never made another movie. This was her first and her last. Now I am even more intrigued.

Most of the time, I am disappointed when something is built up as the 'best' of anything. The best creme' brulee'? meh. The best song? No way. The best band? C'mon. But this time, I must say that if Maria Falconneti's performance as Joan of Arc is not the BEST ever, it is definitely AMONG the best. Let me see if I can put it into words.

Have you ever been watching someone fall apart from a distance? You cannot hear them or read their lips even. But you see their face crumple, their eyes fill, their lips tremble as they try to get the words out. You feel guilty in your voyeurism but don't want to look away. What could possibly have happened? Regardless of what the problem is, it has obviously turned their life, for the time being, upside down. Now imagine that you do know what is wrong. That somehow, just by their expression, you were able to read their thoughts. Their whole story is in their eyes. And you sit by, mezmerized in their power.

This is, in effect, how I felt about Maria Falconetti's performance. I felt that even if I had not seen any of her surroundings or known who she was portraying-I would still have somehow known. She is able to convey the broad spectrum of emotions that Joan of Arc underwent thru the course of her trial-of determination, grief, adoration, fear...simply by the use of her glorious eyes. I stared openmouthed as she wiped tears away, swatted a fly distractingly, bit her parched lips, wiped her runny nose with the back of her hand, and became a living breathing part of history. The dialogue cards were actually unnecessary, as strange as that may seem.

The story follows only the trial of Joan. We do not see her visions, her communication w/ the Dauphine, her march into battle. We see her before the judges, we see her in prison, and we see her die. It is not a light or joyous movie by any stretch of the imagination...not even once does it attempt to pull the viewer out of the doldrums. But where is rests-it accomplishes volumes.

The direction by Carl Dreyer is unprecendented and extremely ahead of its time. He used no make up, retaining a gritty and realistic feel throughout. It is this particular area that makes the film so timeless and the date of 1928 almost incomprehensible. Also, the movie is almost entirely shot in closeup. The different faces (principally that of Falconetti) are the story. And such wonderful faces were chosen. The characters are completely captivating from the outset, based as they are on looks alone. We despise the bishops and judges, love those who are sympathetic to her plight, and mourn for Joan as she bears it all. The realism is at times unsettling, such as when an arm is pierced for the customary 'bleeding', a nursing baby pulls away from his mother's moist nipple to watch the execution, and Joan's head is shaved as a final insult.

Since we know God did not speak to Joan, and that her visions were evidently hallucinations of some kind-the story is bittersweet. But to those of us who are more than willing to die for our faith, it also resonates in a way that many would not understand. Watching as the prosecutors try to attack her faith strikes home in more ways than one. The twisting of her words to serve their purpose, the onslaught of 'unanswerable' questions, the accusations-how can we not be moved by this?

I recommend this to anyone-but especially to those who are intrigued by this story, great acting, awe-inspiring filmmaking, or the strength of will.

My rating: 10/10


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