If it’s true that the sole value of an actor is their capacity to make faces, then Maria Falconetti (1892-1946) could be history’s most highly valued actress. Her performance in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (“La passion de Jeanne d’Arc”) was lost to most audiences until an original print of the 1928 classic was dug up in the closet of an Oslo mental institution in the 1980s.
Dreyer’s retelling of the Joan of Arc heresy trial testifies to the power of the eyes and mouth. Both do Falconetti’s emotive bidding, her face becoming the film’s only navigational tool. Rarely is she seen below the neck. Her craned head, heaven-reaching gaze and woefully parted lips cry out to a God who has all but forsaken her. She dominates the screen, burning her stare into catacombs of the heart.
Since its rediscovery, the film’s popularity has been regrettably limited to film students. Too bad, since Dreyer and Falconetti are well worth the attention of more casual viewers. Dreyer’s accomplishment is more than technical. He never intended his film to be scrutinized, parsed for clues into camerawork (breathtaking) and mise-en-scène (austere and disemboweling). Instead, “The Passion” is kin to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa: an early emotional breakthrough in a cinema that was previously lacking in splendor.