Danish director Carl Dreyer's 1928 film The Passion Of Joan Of Arc is one of the indisputable masterpieces of the silent era, which makes it especially alarming to think it was almost lost. Like his film's heroine, the original negative to Passion was, shortly after its completion, destroyed by fire. Frustrated but given no other real option, Dreyer then assembled a second version from alternate takes, the negative of which was, again, destroyed by fire. For much of the century, viewers were forced to content themselves with cobbled-together versions from surviving prints until a well-preserved copy of Dreyer's first version turned up in the closet of a Danish insane asylum in 1981. This beautifully presented Criterion DVD shows what a find it was. Dreyer's film was part of a new wave of interest in Joan Of Arc following her canonization in 1920, but rather than tell her life story, he concentrates on her trial and execution in a way that breaks considerably with the conventions of the day. Shot largely in close-ups until its climax, Passion has an almost claustrophobic intensity as the simple, pious, patriotic Joan (played by Maria Falconetti) faces the intense scrutiny of church authorities threatened by her direct relationship to God. Though this is the stage-based Falconetti's only significant film credit, her ability to convey emotion using subtle shifts in facial expression suggests that she was born to do it. An unrelentingly intense movie experience, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc rewards the further study this DVD allows. In addition to providing a new soundtrack in the form of Richard Einhorn's composition Voices Of Light—a nice addition even if Dreyer, who preferred that silent films be presented silently, wouldn't approve—the disc includes an insightful commentary by Danish film scholar Casper Tybjerg and other supplemental material. They're all nice touches, particularly Tybjerg's discussion of the lengths the director took to achieve "truthfulness," but given its history, the fact that Dreyer's film still survives is the best touch of all.
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