Dreyer's reconstructed `Passion of Joan of Arc' to be shown Sunday

FILM

Alternate takes used after fire

May 21, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc is, simply stated, one of the most striking, passionate and vivid films ever made, a study in the use of close-ups and in the filming of naked emotion that has lost none of its impact over the eight decades since its release.

Seeing this amazing film in any incarnation is extraordinary enough, but Baltimore cinephiles should consider themselves blessed this weekend. Sunday at the Meyerhoff, Dreyer's stark masterpiece will be shown in a print that is reportedly as close as we can get nowadays to what the director originally had in mind (the original negative was destroyed in a fire, causing Dreyer to reconstruct the film using alternate takes; that version - which will be shown Sunday - was denounced by both the French and British, and subsequently altered). And it will be accompanied by an oratorio written for the film in 1985 by Richard Einhorn (performed by the Baltimore Choral Arts Full Chorus and Orchestra), with the vocal group Anonymous 4 providing the voice of Joan.

Released in 1928, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc eschews the traditional story of Joan. You won't see her transformed from French peasant girl to divinely inspired warrior. You won't see her rallying soldiers or wearing armor. You won't see French troops marvel at how they've been led to victory over the British by a teen-age girl who insists she has spoken to God.

All that may have been what his French producers had in mind when they hired the Danish-born Dreyer, but it wasn't the story he chose to tell. Instead, Dreyer went back to the transcripts of Joan's trial and combined the 29 cross-examinations into one prolonged inquisition. Shooting everything on a single set (movable walls made it possible to vary the backgrounds as necessary) and concentrating almost exclusively on close-ups, Dreyer came up with a film that's equally about Joan's otherworldly courage and her tormentors' fear of it.

To play one of the most revered names in French history, Dreyer chose a little-known French stage actress, Renee Maria Falconetti, who proceeded to give what no less an authority than Pauline Kael said "may be the finest performance ever recorded on film." Falconetti's face radiates courage and faith and trust in the mission God has given her; as determined as her inquisitors are to break her down and get her to admit her heresy, it's clear they never have a chance.

By relying so firmly on close-ups, Dreyer makes his Passion a clear battle between the saintly Joan, usually photographed straight on, her face a study in soft, muted grays, and her inquisitors, often filmed from below, their harsh faces lit so that every crevice appears in stark blacks and whites. The battle is between faith and fear, and there's little question on which side Dreyer found the greater strength.

Falconetti never made another film, possibly because of the travails Dreyer put her through in making this one; he was not above ordering her to perform in take after take, sometimes going so far as to make her kneel on stone until she was exhausted both physically and mentally, the better to drain her face of any suggestion of defiance or fear. However it was achieved, Falconetti's performance was one for which new adjectives needed to be invented. Rarely, if ever, has an actor made such an impact, only to disappear from the screen forever after.

The Passion of Joan of Arc screens at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $15 to $55 (students with ID can get in for half price). Information: 410-523-7070 or www .baltimorechoralarts.com.

Horror spoof

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is a spoof of 1950s horror movies that aspires to be the sort of camp classic directors like Ed Wood and Russ Meyer made without ever realizing it. Advance word (it was not screened for critics here) is that the movie may try a little too hard to be bad but should prove a hoot to those in the right frame of mind. Local bonus: It's playing at Bengies Drive-In, the perfect venue for a film like this! (And I mean that as a compliment.)

At the Charles

German director Rainer Warner Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore, the story of a Spanish film crew anxiously (fearfully?) awaiting the arrival of a sadistic director, is this weekend's entry in the Charles' weekly revival series. Show times are noon tomorrow and 9 p.m. Thursday.

Toni Kalem's A Slipping Down Life, based on the novel by Baltimore's Ann Tyler, is this weekend's Cinema Sundays at the Charles offering. The film stars Lili Taylor as a meek, awkward Southern woman infatuated with an iconoclastic singer-songwriter played by Guy Pearce. Film discussion will be led by Linda DeLibero, chair of the Hopkins Film Department.

Show time is 10:35 a.m. Sunday; admission is $15. Information: 410-727-FILM or www .cinemasundays.com.

Get ready for Harry

Two premiere screenings of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban have been set for June 3 at the Senator Theatre, with proceeds to benefit the Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library Inc.

Tickets for the 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. shows will run $15, and will enable Potter-philes to see the film a day earlier than most of the country. Fans are encouraged to attend in costume.

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