Dallas — In a stunning confluence of aural and visual arts, the Oak Cliff Film Festival featured a screening of the 1928 French film The Passion of Joan of Arc with live musical treatment at the Texas Theatre last weekend.
A classic of the silent era, Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s work chronicles the final hours of Joan of Arc, detailing her trial, torment, and violent execution with startling poignancy. Through the use of effective lighting and hauntingly expressive close-ups, the film does well to pull viewers into the subjective experience of the heroine, who is breathtakingly portrayed by Renée Jeanne Falconetti.
But what made this particular screening of the film special was the masterful collaboration between the members of various local arts groups. A string quartet made up of members of the American Baroque Opera Company’s orchestra and a four-part vocal ensemble from local choral group Verdigris Ensemble joined forces with California-based electronic artist and composer George Sarah to provide a stirring musical compliment to the silent film.
Sarah’s composition is a brilliant mix of pulsing beats, emotive electronic soundscapes, and rich orchestral instrumentation, blending together ancient and modern ideals of sound and tonality. Each movement was hypnotically engaging, culminating in not so much a musical story arc, but rather a singularly expressive moment expanded over roughly 81 minutes. The string quartet, which included cellist and ABOC’s artistic director Eric Smith, offered primarily long, sweeping motions of tonal harmony, peppered with occasionally active staccato phrases. Over this, Verdigris’ representative vocal quartet, which included soprano Elizabeth McGee, mezzo-soprano Erin Thomas, countertenor David Stanley, and tenor Barrett Radziun, layered tight, angelic vocalises that added a thematically appropriate sense of ethereal sanctity to the entire performance.
While there was certainly a narrative being expressed here, between the live musicians, Sarah’s composition, and Dreyer’s film itself, I believe that a second, more relevant function was being carried out. The story of Joan of Arc naturally conjures up questions of morality, spirituality, and the corruptness of earthly institutions. On its own, Dreyer’s work presents a historical narrative that suggests these themes, but when combined so thoughtfully, so artfully, with these classical and new-aged musical elements, patrons have no other choice but to sit inside of a communal moment of reflection and introspection.
The legendary film critic Roger Ebert once said of the film: “In a medium without words, where the filmmakers believed that the camera captured the essence of characters through their faces, to see Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is to look into eyes that will never leave you.” And the great film critic Pauline Kael said “it may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.”
The intensity of these iconic images married with the creatively sound collaboration of these artists elevated the experience for every person blessed to witness this performance. Together, we all became vulnerable to the gripping realities of fear, of self-doubt, of destiny and purpose—universally vexing concepts that ultimately connect us with the hope of coming out on the other side at least slightly fulfilled and a little more at peace.
As the house lights came up at the end of the performance, one could see several people in the audience wiping away tears, gathering themselves back to the present place and time. I can think of no better way of connecting with the local community than through an experience that was at once intellectually intoxicating and emotionally sobering.