'The Passion of Joan of Arc'

Watching a classic movie on the big screen for the first time is akin to traveling back in time to meet your parents before you were born. Whatever you thought you knew no longer applies.

I've seen Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) several times at home, but SXSW gave me the opportunity to experience it the way it was meant to be seen. Or at least an approximation: I doubt that Dreyer ever imagined that his movie might be accompanied by musicians playing synthesizers, or that people would be eating a breakfast burrito and sipping hot coffee at a place called the Alamo Drafthouse while his inspirational film unreeled. I was immediately -- I mean literally from the moment the first image appeared -- captivated, and quickly became enthralled in the drama of an 82-year-old creation. And I realized that everything I thought I knew about the film no longer applied.

Superficially, there's not much, story-wise, to Passion. Joan, played by the great Maria Falconetti, is tried in court. A judge forges a letter. Joan is further interrogated in her cell. She is threatened with torture. Things do not end well for Joan. Within those few sequences, however, is encapsulated a lifetime of religious fervor and piety. Joan looks to be in constant communion with a higher power. Those who judge her feel secure in their own righteousness.


All this is communicated through the images, which rocket by in a flurry of extreme close-ups. When the camera is static, it's pausing to focus on a ravishing moment; otherwise, it's active, capturing more action per frame than even Michael Bay and a hundred computers could dream up. It's an exciting movie, far more so than I ever thought before. Watching the drama play out on a big screen amplifies every gesture, every movement, every angry glare, every imploring, beseeching face.

If you're attentive, of course, you can experience the same thing at home. Cinematical's Jeffrey M. Anderson first saw the film ten years ago on Criterion's restored DVD version and wrote: "I watched the film all the way through with its brand spanking new score (by Richard Einhorn and Anonymous 4) and was just about moved to tears. I have the feeling that if I had been in the dark of a movie theater, the flood gates would have been released."

The two-man group In the Nursery performed their own score live for the SXSW screening, and it was just fine. But I suspect that nearly any unobtrusive musical score, or none at all, would have served the film equally well. I was emotionally moved at a deep level by The Passion of Joan of Arc, and by the end I was at the point of tears.

Then the lights came up and the spell was broken. It was a magnificent experience, but it was only the first movie of the day. I tweeted a joke, walked out into the sunshine of a warm afternoon, talked with some friends, and headed off to another screening.