European filmmakers have achieved more respectable results than their Hollywood counterparts when it comes to telling Joan of Arc's remarkable story. Two major examples are arriving on the home-video market this season.
The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent movie directed in 1928 by Danish filmmaker Carl Th. Dreyer, is considered by many critics to be the most artistically vivid and emotionally stirring rendition of the tale.
The chief reason for its legendary reputation is the brilliant match between its timeless historical subject - the trial that required Joan to defend her faith before skeptical representatives of church and state - and Dreyer's decision to film it primarily in relentless close-ups, using the sharply etched faces of his performers to suggest the invisible spiritual struggles going on beneath the drama's human dimensions.
French actress Rene Falconetti became an internationally known screen icon for her portrayal of Joan, which was crafted through a difficult and prolonged filming process that engraved a measure of actual suffering on Falconetti's countenance.
Although most silent films were accompanied by live music in theaters, Dreyer preferred this one to be seen without accompaniment so that its visual majesty would have maximum impact.
Spectators viewing the DVD edition from The Criterion Collection have this option, but they may also select Richard Einhorn's recently composed music score, which admirably echoes the movie's subtle complexities. They may also choose a spoken commentary that illuminates some aspects of the film while sliding carelessly past others.
Joan the Maid, directed in 1993 by Jacques Rivette, reflects this great French filmmaker's commitment to a sweeping and uncompromising cinema that reflects the enduring mysteries of human experience.
Divided into two sections ("The Battles" and "The Prisons") running almost six hours in all, the epic stars popular French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, who conveys Joan's enigmatic personality through sturdy, no-nonsense acting that nonetheless carries great personal appeal.
Admirers of Rivette's most important films, such as "Out One: Spectre" and "La Belle Noiseuse," may miss the full intellectual rigor that has placed him in the front ranks of France's influential New Wave movement. They may be pleasantly surprised by his unsuspected expertise with action and battle scenes, though! Facets Video of Chicago deserves thanks for releasing this valuable contribution to modern moviemaking.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society