Monday, 25 February 2013

GFF Festival Diary #2: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Despite multiple opportunities and a strong desire to do so, I’ve somehow never got round to watching The Passion of Joan of Arc before now – an omission in part down to its formidable reputation. Like its saintly protagonist, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s landmark film has long been canonised, and this universal reverence, coupled with its renowned emotional intensity, have meant the film always felt deserving of something more than a casual rental. But excuses aside, the distressing fact remains: I’ve made time in my life to see all three Diary of a Wimpy Kid films and every Saw, yet never experienced what US critic Jonathan Rosenbaum described as 'the pinnacle of silent cinema – and perhaps of the cinema itself'. Talk about cardinal sins…

Yet tonight, seated under the vaulted ceilings of Glasgow Cathedral, it feels less like a grievous oversight and more like a sagacious effort to ensure my first viewing is an unforgettable one. The cathedral’s gothic architecture, imposing stone pillars and faintly glowing stained glass leave a pronounced impression whatever your creed, and with the projector literally atop the altar, the interlinking of awes both religious and cinematic is potent. Even before the film begins, I can feel the goosebumps rise (though whether that’s from wonderment or chilliness it’s hard to say: impressive it may be, but the cathedral is far from cosy, and jackets stay firmly on throughout).

As the audience adjusts in tightly-packed pews, GFF co-director Allan Hunter takes to the pulpit to deliver his introduction. Special thanks are extended both to the Cathedral’s custodians for graciously hosting the evening, and to Cork French Film Festival curator Paul Callanan, who originally commissioned the event last year, and who will invite it back to Cork next month for a performance at Saint Fin Barre’s. A potted overview of the film’s exulted status follows, with Sight & Sound’s decennial critic’s poll (in which Passion… consistently charts high) evoked as a broad barometer of the enduring admiration it attracts, and director Dreyer venerated as one of several early filmmakers to alter perceptions of cinema’s capabilities: not merely a sideshow novelty or 'cheap entertainment for the masses', but a medium with latent artistic, poetic and spiritual possibilities. Hunter goes on to note Dreyer’s technical innovations, and reserves special praise (as is customary) for Maria Falconetti’s sublime central performance. In order to elicit a genuine sense of suffering, Hunter recounts, Dreyer instructed Falconetti to kneel on concrete for extended periods – a behind-the-scenes tit-bit that puts any minor grumblings about the hardness of the cathedral’s seating in perspective…

The film itself is every bit as resplendent as years of eulogising have led me to expect. Falconetti’s face sears itself on brain and conscience, her expressively wide eyes conveying acute torment during every close-up, her iconic framing augmented tonight by the screen’s grand surroundings. Less expected qualities include the sheer terror of the torture chamber sequence and the horrific final execution, which have a visceral impact that stays fixed in mind well into the following day. Composer Irene Buckley’s new score proves a hauntingly dramatic accompaniment to these onscreen revelations, contrasting ambient electronics with sonorous organ (courtesy of the distinguished James McVinnie), and utilising sudden silences to devastating effect. As pounding tom drums reverberate through the cathedral’s sanctuary, it becomes difficult for a newcomer enthusiast like myself to imagine the film divorced from so apt a soundtrack. Also excellent is soprano Gemma Nash, whose choral masses punctuate proceedings beautifully; while I can’t claim to have any significant experience or frame of reference for the recital style, it sounds pretty perfect from where I’m seated.

When the screen fades to black, there is a hesitant hush before the enthusiastic and prolonged applause commences. I can’t be the only one there who uses that moment to reflect on how special the event has been: a highlight of the entire festival – indeed, any festival – and a profound reminder of just how mesmerising and stimulating cinema can be. And you don’t get that with Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules, let me assure you.

[written for the Glasgow Film Festival blog]

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