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San Diego Symphony Screens Silent Classic ‘The Passion Of Joan Of Arc’

Luscious Noise provides live accompaniment featuring John Luther Adams’ music

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Criterion Collection

Renee Falconetti stars as the title character in Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent classic, "The Passion of Joan of Arc." The film screens at 8 p.m., Saturday, May 19 at Copley Hall as part of San Diego Symphony's Fox Film Series.

Companion viewing

"Vampyr" (1932)

"The Song of Bernadette" (1943)

"Saint Joan" (1957)

"Brother Sun, Sister Moon" (1972)

The San Diego Symphony will present the silent classic "The Passion of Joan of Arc" this Saturday as part of its Fox Theatre Film Series. The music collective Luscious Noise will perform live as the film plays at Copley Hall.

Silent movies were never meant to be watched in silence. They were designed to be enjoyed with live music accompaniment. That’s a treat modern audiences now only get as a novelty at special events like the one San Diego Symphony is holding. It’s presenting Carl Dreyer’s 1928 classic "The Passion of Joan of Arc."

Photo caption:

Photo by Beth Accomando

Copley Hall where "The Passion of Joan of Arc" will screen with live music accompaniment.

The old Fox Theatre, where the screening takes place, was built just a year after the film came out and was designed as a movie palace.

"The Fox Theatre definitely was a movie palace," said J.D. Smith, director of marketing for San Diego Symphony. "It was the grandest of its kind at that time certainly here in San Diego. It was the A ticket. I believe an admission to a show here was $2, which in those days might well have been half your monthly entertainment budget."

So it’s the perfect venue to make an event out of screening a nearly century-old film.

"William Fox was very much a believer that the entertainment started at the front door not just what was going on the screen of his movie palaces. So there is a lot of rich detail," Smith said.

Like art deco ornamentation in the rotunda, or a water fountain that once flowed in the lobby. Fox even placed his own image in the lobby décor.

"But just so we know that none of this is to be taken seriously, we’ve got pigs with wings, so there is definitely a touch of whimsy in all of this," Smith added.

But the venue is also well designed for an audience to be entertained.

"One of the ways that we really got lucky with this hall, it certainly wasn’t built for a symphony orchestra, but it was built for people to be close to the action on stage with the movie screen coming down and whatever show or presentation might proceed the movie," Smith said.

And the acoustics are great.

"If you look around it’s about a 50-50 mix between surfaces that are more smooth and the surfaces that have all the moldings and craziness going on. So some sound that comes off the stage will be reflected, and some is going to be absorbed so that you get a nice balance and resonation."

Smith has been programming silent films with the symphony for years.

"I always knew that at some point I wanted us to show Carl Dreyer’s 'The Passion of Joan of Arc.' And I always knew that I wanted a special treatment of this movie, not just the organ. And at the same time one of our symphony musicians, our violinist John Stubbs, he has a musical group he directs called Luscious Noise and he had the idea at some point that he might want to also screen Joan of Arc with music that he happened to hear along with it when he was just at home one day, and that’s this John Luther Adams piece, 'In the White Silence.' And so it was very serendipitous and so this is happening."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Criterion Collection

Director Carl Dreyer focused intently on actress Renee Falconetti in lingering close ups in "The Passion of Joan of Arc."

The film features the only screen performance of actress Renée Falconetti, who plays Joan of Arc.

"This is a movie that doesn’t pull any punches," Smith noted. "It is quite historical in a number of ways. It was one of the very first docu-dramas in that actual transcripts from Joan’s trial provide a lot of the basis of the dialogue in the film. And it’s also very well known for the way that Dreyer used close-ups. I find it a remarkable film because it’s a film about a woman who is finally allowed to speak, but she is not really heard. They don’t really listen to what she is saying because the men running the trial have their own agendas, and it all comes to a terrible end, it is inexorable, and you feel that as you are watching the film. And I think John Luther Adams music will be a good reflection of that."

The film on its own is a stunning work of art. I had the experience of seeing it at the TCM Classic Film Festival two years ago with a choir and orchestra performing "Voices of Light" live. It was a transformative experience that gave me goosebumps from beginning to end and has made me a devout fan of film with live music.

"I think with this accompaniment, it is going to have a little something extra that I think people will find very moving and very memorable," Smith said.

The film’s sense of religious transcendence will be further elevated by Adam’s music performed live, thus turning a gorgeous old movie palace into something of a cinema church.

"The Passion of Joan of Arc" screens at 8 p.m., Saturday, at Copley Hall. More information is available at the symphony's website.

The San Diego Symphony will present Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent classic "The Passion of Joan of Arc" this Saturday as part of its Fox Theatre Film Series. The music collective Luscious Noise will perform live as the film plays at Copley Hall.

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