Art house: 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' is restored
Actress Mary Pickford's thesis was that cinematic artistry should have evolved from sound into silence rather than the other way around. Her theory is given credence by The Passion of Joan of Arc, a 1928 French period drama directed, co-written and co-edited by Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer.
In chronicling the 1431 inquisition and death of Joan of Arc, a French martyr in the Hundred Years' War with England, Dreyer has fashioned a sublime work so startlingly radical in style that its lack of dialogue and colour come across as inspired creative choices rather than impositions dictated by the era's technical restraints.
The dialogue, told through intertitles, is taken verbatim from actual trial transcripts and pared down to their essence. The verbal economy reflects the stark elegance of the visuals - with Dreyer accomplishing a transcendent feat in relating the saga largely in close-ups or medium shots. These are boldly arranged against plain backgrounds despite the construction of an architecturally exceptional set.
Amazingly, the result is not in the least bit static, a tribute to Dreyer's discernment in montage editing and camera movement. Not unlike its title character, the ostensible simplicity belied an extreme complexity on many levels.
So, too, Joan's remarkable embodiment by Maria Falconetti. A French stage actress specialising in light comedy, the 35-year-old was an odd choice to portray the teenage Maid of Orleans. Nor did she have much film experience - what with her previous celluloid foray having taken place in 1917. It's yet another example of Dreyer's genius that he saw in this most unlikely candidate the potential to deliver what is now considered one of the screen's most haunting portrayals.
It was a gruelling shoot and Falconetti, perhaps knowing her triumph would be impossible to surpass, never appeared in another film. Though Falconetti dominates the proceedings, the supporting players impersonating Joan's tormentors and advocates are also a forceful presence - each possessed a uniquely expressive face whose features were brilliantly captured by cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who would go on to a noteworthy Hollywood career and five Oscar nominations.
Considering its subject matter, it is fitting that something of a miracle has allowed 21st-century audiences to witness Maté's camerawork and Dreyer's editing as initially intended. Those of us who first encountered the film before the 1980s - when the 1928 version was presumed lost - were privy to grainy, bastardised reels cut together from censored editions brought about by the production having engendered controversy.
So it seems like an act of God - or at least the God of Movies - that led to the 1981 discovery of a pristine original print in the closet of a Norwegian mental asylum. Its re-release has restored the oeuvre's reputation to a state of exalted grace behooving both Joan and those with a passion for cinema.
The Passion of Joan of Arc, July 6, 2.30pm, July 11, 9.40pm, July 14, 5.15pm, HK Arts Centre. Part of the HK Cine Fan programme