B&W, 1928, 82 mins.

Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Antonin Artaud, Michel Simon / Produced by Jean Hugo / Cinematography by Rudolph Maté

Format: DVD - Criterion (MSRP $39.95)

Full Frame / Dolby Digital 5.1

Anyone who doubts the transformative powers of cinema should immediately take a look at Carl Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Passion of Joan of Arc), one of the indisputable high points of world cinema. An alternately lacerating, moving, and transcendent experience, the film has long been unavailable in a watchable print thanks to years of bad distribution and censorship. Ironically, both of the negatives cut by Dreyer himself perished in mysterious fires, but a complete, clean version was discovered in the mid-'80s in a Norwegian mental institution. Criterion's DVD presents this restored, original edition (complete with French intertitles, subtitled optionally in English) in a presentation long overdue and bound to win the film a legion of new followers. Even if you don't like silent films, give this one a try; you will not be sorry.

Most of the Western world knows the story of young Jeanne, the French peasant girl who heard divine voices (including St. Michael) and led an army against the British hordes. Dreyer's film focuses on the actual transcripts of her trial for heresy (conducted covertly by the British under the guise of a religious investigation); in fact, most of the film takes place in the courtroom, with the shots focusing almost entirely on Jeanne and her accusers. Drama doesn't get much higher than this, and Dreyer refuses to moralize or use the narrative as a vehicle for some hidden political agenda. By the time the infamous burning at the stake arrives, the viewer is completely battered and exhilarated, both emotionally and intellectually.

Along with the stylish Vampyr, Passion remains Dreyer's signature film in the history books, and rightfully so. Maria Falconetti, a comedic stage actress in her only film appearance, renders Jeanne so eloquently and perfectly (those marvelous eyes!) that every acting student should be forced to study her every move in front of the camera. Dreyer reportedly pushed her to physical and spiritual extremes to get the desired result, but whatever the means, he certainly succeeded. In aesthetic terms, Passion hasn't been as influential as other landmark works like Citizen Kane, perhaps because many of the editing and compositional techniques simply can't be duplicated. (Interestingly, Ken Russell did try to duplicate the effect in some sequences of The Devils, a blistering flipside to Dreyer's film.)

The DVD doesn't simply include the film, however. Rather than tossing in some random organ score, Criterion has included Richard Einhorn's Visions of Light, a fusion of oratorio and opera written specifically to be played with the film (as it has been performed live on several occasions). The music is spectacular on its own terms, but married to Dreyer's visuals, the result is 82 minutes guaranteed to provoke goosebumps. The fiery climax, filled with voices bursting from every channel (including the group Anonymous 4), will rigorously test out anyone's home sound system, and Einhorn's use of voice (in Latin, but a translated libretto is included) always manages to complement the film's shifts in mood from start to finish. The film itself looks remarkably good -- one of the best silent film restorations to date, in fact. A few unfortunate signs of age could not be removed, but overall, this Passion is going to be difficult to top. A very satisfying experience all the way, and highly recommended.

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