Transcendence Incarnate: Renée Maria Falconetti - Atlas Obscura
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Transcendence Incarnate: Renée Maria Falconetti

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce to you yet another one of Atlas Obscura’s all-star intern contributors: Niti! A recent grad from Duke, Niti’s passed the last few years in Rio pretending that she didn’t spend most of her life training as a concert pianist, choosing instead to pick up kickboxing.  …No really.  She’s awesome, and has lately become very infatuated with Dreyer’s Joan of Arc.  Without further ado, I give you Niti! – Sarah

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Renée Maria Falconetti’s performance in director Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (or, The Passion of Joan of Arc) has been described as the most remarkable performance ever committed to film. It made the actress a legend, despite also being the only film in which she ever acted.  

Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc - Renee Maria Falconetti - Altas Obscura Blog(source)

Passion is shot almost entirely in close-ups and emphasizes the fervor in her bulging eyes, a fervor that borders on madness. A choir chants dolefully in the background, emphasizing the religious order that Joan has offended - the religion she believed she fully represented. Falconetti forces the audience to choose between several possible truths.

  • Were Joan’s visions of St. Matthew were a trick of the devil?
  • Is it God who speaks through this girl?
  • Or is it some variation of mental illness?

The scene in which Joan is burned at the stake is the most legendary moment in what is a legendary film - her head jerks from side to side, eyes wide with fright, as she tumbles forward with one word - “Jesus!” Her last word. 

The film draws no conclusions. And like those present in the courtroom, Dreyer asks that his audience accept or deny the veracity of Joan’s claims. 

Falconetti is as Joan was. Throughout the laborious 18-month shoot, Passion’s director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, dragged Falconetti through the proverbial coals.  Legend is told of his demanding techniques of getting his desired performance from his leading lady, including putting her in physically painful situations, only to ask that she remove all emotion from her face so as to exude an inner turmoil.  Given the intensity of the production, it’s no wonder that after starring in Passion, Falconetti spent time in a mental institution, finally taking her own life in 1946.

La Passion du Jeanne d'Arc - Dreyer - Maria Falconetti - Atlas Obscura Blog

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Ultimately, the actress and the woman she portrayed followed parallel story arcs: throughout the ages, both historically- and cinematically-speaking, Joan and Falconetti have transcended the passing of time by immortalizing themselves in stories, becoming emblematic of the very work to which they dedicated themselves during their lifetimes. 

Independent from Falconetti, Dreyer also spent time in a mental institution. At the time of his death, he mistakenly thought all the original copies of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc had been completely destroyed in a fire. Then, in 1981, an original cut of The Passion of Joan of Arc was miraculously discovered in the closet of a Norwegian mental institution, albeit too late to soothe Dreyer’s restless mind.