Passion of Joan of Arc, The

"Movie Magazine International" Review

(Air Date: Week Of 10/16/96)

Mary Weems

Voices of Light is the oratorio composed by Richard Einhorn, inspired by his quite accidental viewing of the 1928 silent film classic "The Passion of Joan of Arc". He discovered it in 1988 poking around in the film archives at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and, in his own words, it left him in a state of amazement and wonder.

"The Passion of" Joan of Arc, by Danish director Carl Dreyer, could be called "Visage of Light". The visage is that of Joan of Arc, played by the French actress, Melle Falconetti. Her luminous face, shot at different angles, and at various degrees of emotional anguish and exultation, in the only thing in at least forty per cent of the film's frames, and the wonder and triumph of this movie is, that we never get enough of it. If you took the young Vanessa Redgrave of "Camelot", dressed her as a medieval boy with a boy's haircut, and gave her the worldweary radiance she displayed as the political activist in Julia, you'd be approaching the magic of Melle Falconetti's performance.

The film's drama is based on detailed transcripts of the trial of Joan of Arc for heresy, which pitted Joan, an illiterate nineteen year-old country girl, who has to count on her fingers to guess her own age, against a committee of theologians and lawyers. But, hearing her voices, she has already led armies, won battles, and cleared the path for the coronation of Charles VII, and she is their match. When they ask if the Angel Michael appears to her wearing clothes, or naked, she says: You don't think God has clothes for him?

The camera continually moves from her face to those of the judges, whose faces are a study in craftiness, disapproval, and, occasionally, a flicker of sympathy. The chief inquisitor's fat, sagging face is especially expressive, shifting from rage to a hypocritically sympathetic smile, and, in the closeups, all his lines, moles, and nosehairs are mercilessly exposed. The action shifts to the torture room, where Joan collapses after watching a spiked torture wheel whirls faster and faster, to a famous scene where her hair is cut, and finally to her death at the stake, where the camera moves from a flock of birds flying away, to the cross held by a priest, to the smoking flagons, to the faces of the villagers, and back to Joan.

The conjunction of this film with Einhorn's movingly evocative Voices of Light is the perfect marriage of image and sound. Composed to accompany, not narrate the film, it is much more successful than Phillip Glass' monotonous musical narration for Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast", which forced singers to match their singing speed to the film's dialogue. The ethereal beauty of Einhorn's music, with text based on writings of medieval female mystics, clearly emanates from his deep and genuine inspiration from Dreyer's film, and from Joan's story. The performance I saw at Davies Hall in San Francisco, featuring the choral group Anonymous Four, was a perfect intersection of two works that can be performed independently with complete success, but which, as a union, create the consummate artistic experience. Catch either one, if you can, but especially both.

Copyright 1996 Mary Weems

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