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La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc

Review by: Graeme Kay | Rating: Two

CARL Dreyer's silent film, made in 1928, is a must for anyone with an interest in the development of modern cinema.

But non-movie buffs should not be put off by the scholarly implications of that recommendation because there is plenty in this powerfully moving tale for them too.

Jeanne de Arc was a simple, pious, French peasant girl, who, by the age of 19, had become an accomplished soldier and a national heroine thanks to a series of famous victories over the English during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).

However, around 1429, she was captured by the Burgundians and sold as a prisoner to the English, after which she was tried by a synod of French clergymen on charges of witchcraft and heresy, sometime between 1430-1431.

The film tells the story of that trial. And since it was based on the actual transcript of the proceedings, it can justifiably claim to be a drama-documentary.

But this is no dry, dispassionate document. Through his innovative camerawork and scene-setting, Dreyer creates a nightmarish vision of an innocent young girl, tricked into an admission of guilt by the sophistry and hypocrisy of a corrupt team of inquisitors led by the Bishop of Beauvais.

Falconetti, who is superb in the leading role, but never appeared on film again, is shot almost entirely in close-up; the long-lingering takes emphasising not only her austere beauty, but also her fear and confusion as she tries to make sense of her terrifying ordeal.

More importantly, though, Dreyer's camerawork conveys an overwhelming sense of rapture; a feeling that standing somewhere beyond the gargoyle-like churchmen is a group of angels, or even God, from whom Jeanne is taking instruction.

As a counterpoint to the intensity of the inquisition, Dreyer slots in shots of the outside world in which the townspeople of Rouen go about their daily business as preparations for Jeanne's execution are made.

The earthy, slightly macabre Breughel-esque stylings of this external footage again emphasising the saintliness of Jeanne.

The final pathetic scenes, which revolve around the heroine's incineration and the riots that followed, capture the outrage of the local citizenry as they realise the venality of the deed that has been done in the name of France.

La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc is set for a limited release in selected cinemas. See it while you can.

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