Review: Powerful fusion of silent film and live music in Passion of Joan of Arc at TIFF Bell Lightbox
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC
**** (out of 4)
Film by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Music by Richard Einhorn. Live music directed by David Fallis. Repeats tonight. TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W. 416-968-3456 or www.tiff.net
Even without any sound at all, Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 silent film of the trial, torture and execution of Joan of Arc makes compelling viewing. Augmented by a live soundtrack by American composer Richard Einhorn, performed by a gang of talented Torontonians conducted by David Fallis at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Tuesday night, this is multimedia at its most riveting.
What a fantastic way to launch the four-title Essential Cinema Concerts series at TIFF's chic new home. (The three upcoming film-concerts are either world or Toronto premieres.)
This was the first time I'd seen The Passion of Joan of Arc, so I wasn't prepared for the mesmerising, doe-eyed face of Renée Falconetti (credited simply as Mademoiselle Falconetti onscreen) as Joan. For the story to work, we have to believe that the 19-year-old 15th century martyr was touched by God. Dreyer's in-your-face lens and Falconetti's unflinching intensity don't let us forget her state of grace for a moment.
Joan's angelic features are in sharp contrast to the caricatures of ignorance, pomposity, entitlement and sheer evil that stare down at her with unvarnished masculine contempt. This is Good vs Evil depicted in black and white, both literally and figuratively.
Although there is no room for nuance here, the visual intensity kept me from thinking about it too much. I was swept away.
The soundtrack, an oratorio called Voices of Light, by contemporary American composer Richard Einhorn, is equally polarized, making for an ideal match. Premiered in 1994, after the composer had been inspired by a 1985 remastering of the film (after an intact print of was found in 1981, in a mental hospital in Norway), the score for orchestra and voices has become the definitive accompaniment.
Blending vocal parts inspired by Medieval song and plainsong (and alternating between Latin and French) and instrumental writing based on layered minimalist note-patterns, Voices of Light could become tedious listening after the first 15 minutes. But, matched up seamlessly with the passionate visuals, the music becomes an integral part of the emotional rollercoaster.
There were times that I tried to focus on the music separately, but the faces on screen kept dragging me back to the movie.
Squeezed tightly on a small stage in front of the screen were an orchestra made up of about two-dozen string and woodwind players, as well as members of Choir 21 and the Toronto Consort, all led by David Fallis. They did a fantastic job in a demanding situation: there couldn't be any straying from the moving pictures, and they had to sound balanced with amplification (movie theatres are not designed for acoustic music; without microphones, the sound wouldn't travel past the first two or three rows of seats).
There is a repeat performance tonight, and its well worth experiencing, as it's such a departure from classical concerts where the visuals are an add-on, rather than the main event. (Prepare for cinematic sticker shock, though; a full-price adult ticket is $50.)
My only quibble is with the lack of background information. There were no printed programmes for the screening/concert and TIFF artistic director Noah Cowan's introduction was as brief as the notes on the film venue's website. If you didn't know anything about Dreyer, his masterpiece, Joan of Arc or Voices of Light before you entered the theatre, you wouldn't know any more on your way out.
You'd simply leave with the conviction that you'd just experienced something very special.
The Criterion Collection released The Passion of Joan of Arc together with Einhorn's oratorio, performed by Anonymous 4 and the Radio Netherlands Philharmonic and Choir, not too long ago. The DVD comes with several background extras, and the booklet includes the full vocal text.
To give you a taste, here are the opening 10 minutes. (Incidentally, one thing that surprised me was the frequency of the camera-angle cuts; they feel right at home in the 21st century):