Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Essential Cinema: Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc/The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

As part of the grand opening of the TIFF/Bell Lightbox facility in Toronto, they compiled a list of the 100 most essential films of all time. Over the course of the next few months, these films will be screened in pristine prints, at one of their five cinemas. Screening tonight is the second showing of what I consider one of the greatest films ever made – and named number one on the Essential Cinema list – Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). But there is a caveat. The reason it became one of my favourite films is a bit convoluted.

In the late 1970s/early 1980s, I was studying film at the University of Toronto. In more than one course, the professors showed Dreyer's silent film, usually in scratched 16mm prints with an equally rough soundtrack. At those screenings, I came to understand the power of the film: the tight close ups on Joan (Maria (Renée) Falconetti – in a great performance) as she is hectored by her accusers; the lack of any establishing shots thus contributing to our own dislocation and disorientation; the inspired shooting and editing techniques that come out of German Expressionism; the use of only the actual transcripts from her trial 500 years previous for the dialogue cards, etc. Yet, through all those screenings (probably three or four times during four years of university), I never understood why, even then, it was considered one of the greatest films ever made. Sure, it had its power, but 'great'? It just didn't strike me. I was to discover, in time, that whenever I saw it in those years, there was always one important element missing.

In 1988, I was attending the Festival of Festivals in Toronto (now called the Toronto International Film Festival – TIFF). One of the films – showing at the late, great University Theatre – was a restored copy of Dreyer's film. It was also going to be accompanied by a live orchestra and choir. Having endured it three or four times during my university years, I didn't feel a need to see it yet again. But in those days, I had a press pass. If I simply flashed it at the door of a cinema, I gained access (sure, if there was a line up, I had to join it, but all I needed was the pass). Instead of the Dreyer film, I decided to see a new Portuguese picture that was never likely to open commercially in Toronto. (That's what I used to love about the Festival – I could see intriguing films that would probably never be shown in Toronto again. Sometimes this worked out great; sometimes it was a disaster.) So I hunkered down for the Portuguese picture (I don't remember now what it was), and within 10 minutes, I was bored out of my skull. The seat snapped up as I quickly rose and made a hasty “scuse me, pardon me, scuse me” down the row and out of the cinema. I pulled out my guide to see if there was anything else worth going to since I'd bailed on my first choice, the Portuguese pic. The only option was La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. It had just started and I was only three minutes from the theatre. So, sighing, I decided to dash over and see it one more time. To this day, I'm not sure what compelled me. Maybe it was divine intervention. Luckily, in those days, you could walk in at the last minute and still get a seat for a film like this.

I made my way quietly to an empty seat near the front (the theatre was practically full), sat down and looked up. What I saw was a revelation. Yes, everything I'd been taught to look for was still in this film: the close ups, Falconetti's great performance, the disorientation, the expressionistic shooting techniques, etc. That hadn't changed. What had changed was the sound. With a sizable orchestra and choir supplying the music, Dreyer's film came completely and utterly alive. As this beautiful playing and singing matched up to the tragedy on screen, I finally got it. On more than one occasion, the goose bumps popped out on my arms and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. So, this was how this film was supposed to be seen, not in some dingy 16mm print with a wretched soundtrack. The film's visuals had been restored, too, so the images positively shimmered. It was glorious and at the end, with tears in my eyes, I (along with the audience) gave this 60-year-old picture (and the orchestra and choir) an extended, and completely earned, standing ovation. The missing piece for me was something that Dreyer had intended all along for the viewers. Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc was not just about the images/performances, it was also about the music and the singing. When the film debuted in 1928, it was probably presented in this same fashion.

Once again, tonight we are offered a rare treat. A chamber orchestra and a choir will accompany the film, just as I saw it in 1988. If you have the time and money (tickets are $50), run don't walk to this screening at Bell Lightbox. It is a rare, revelatory experience that must be seen in order to understand why Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc today consistently battles with Citizen Kane for title of “greatest film ever made.”

David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is about to launch his first novel, The Empire of Death, at an event in Toronto on Tuesday, October 19, 2010. Details to follow.

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