The Passion of Joan of Arc
The Cantilena Choir joins musicians to present a silent film
Director Andrea Goodman rehearses with her Cantelina Choir as the "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is on the big screen.
Photo Megan Haley
She is tall and broad shouldered, her dark hair is cut short, and she is wearing a man’s buttoned-down shirt—one reason she is here, fighting for her life.
She is a poorly educated farm girl from a small town who left to join the army. She is a radical with a cause. Joan of Arc walks into a stone room in 1928, in one of the last and greatest silent films by the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer.
It’s a film with history. Like Joan herself, The Passion of Joan of Arc has been censored, banned and burned. And now, it has been revived. On May 12, 2018 at Trinity Church in Lenox, the Berkshire-based Cantilena Choir will lead a rare screening and performance of the uncut film and the original score, joined by musicians from the Albany Symphony and Cambridge organist Peter Krasinski.
Now in its 14th year, the choir has performed a wide range of work in the southern Berkshires and New York, from Black American spirituals to Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Director Andrea Goodman has admired Joan of Arc since she was a teenager and turned to her in Cantilena’s first nod to silent film. Criterion re-released the full-length Passion a few years ago, Krasinksi says. The original film was lost in a fire until a worker at the Dikemark Hospital mental institution in Oslo, Norway, opened a janitor’s closet in 1981 and found a stack of film canisters. The original music is still lost. Movie houses in the 1920s had an organist or a full orchestra, Krasinski says, that would have taken on the classical French score by Victor Alix and Leo Pouget.
Many composers and musicians have created their own scores, from 15th-century chansons to Australian indie rock. Krasinski has improvised his own organ music for it, in a worldwide career accompanying classic films. He can respond to the feeling in the audience and the slightest movements on the screen.
In Lenox, he will perform under Goodman’s direction with 25 singers and 15 musicians—the first time a large ensemble has returned to Alix and Pouget’s music.
The full choir and orchestra need careful timing, Goodman says, to align the sound with the scenes. After the full-length film came to light, musicologist Gillian Anderson found a reduced score with string and vocal parts at the Library of Congress, and Goodman tracked it down. The choir will perform in French the sections for voices, about a third of the full score. She has added bassoon, oboe and percussion, adapting the music to the uncut film and using new technology to match the music to the action.
Dreyer’s film is known for its camera work, for Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s performance as Joan, and for the impact of close-up shots moving between her and her accusers. She is the only woman in the room; men talk among themselves and meet her eyes only to force her to say what they want to hear. They come close. Snide. Hostile. Tight with rage against her naked belief.
If you refuse the church … you will be alone.
Yes, alone. Alone with God.
To prepare for filming, Dreyer read the transcripts of the trial. Joan is one of the few women who appear in any record in 1431, let alone in her own words.
When the film begins, she has already lifted the siege of Orléans and has led French troops against the British with no weapon but a standard. She has turned the course of a war that has devastated her country for 15 years. She is 19 and believes God has called her. She is a prisoner of the British, and they are losing the war and bloodily determined to prove that God is not on her side. She is a young woman, assaulted and holding on in terror.
Dreyer insisted on a realism that makes her present, in 1928 and 90 years later. The actors appear without makeup, Krasinski says. The monks are tonsured, and Falconetti, as Joan, has her short hair cut almost to the scalp. The stone cell where she prays is real, where sunlight touches the floor and the shadow of the window bars lies like a cross. Dreyer shot the film in a complete reconstruction of the castle and courtyard in Rouen, according to Donald Greig of the Orlando Consort (quoted in The Guardian).
When Joan collapses in a fever and a doctor bleeds her arm, the arm and the blood are real. “What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past,” Dreyer wrote.
The French government and the church censored it when it came out. “It’s a political story, depending on whose side you’re on,” Goodman says. “When they’re marching her to the stake, there’s a juggler, a street fair with acrobats. The music’s showing this mayhem while she’s being burned.”