What is cinema? We can speak of its technical aspects: cinema is a medium in which still images (often, but not always photographic in nature) are shown at a fast enough rate to create the illusion of movement. Cinema is a medium of montage, in which the creator shows the viewer a single image followed by a specific different image, and expects the viewer to understand that there is a relationship between these images. Cinema is a medium of duration, in which the creator dictates a precise length of time for the viewer to engage with the image.

We can speak of its affective aspects: cinema is a feeling-creating medium, in which, trough certain visual and perhaps auditory stimuli, the creator guides the viewer to a particular emotional reaction. Cinema is a meaning-carrying medium, in which, by the denotation and/or connotation of images and sounds, or the implications of a narrative (for cinema, though it is not inherently a narrative or dramatic medium, can be used for the purposes of drama), the creator provides the viewer with knowledge they did not previously have.

We can compare it to other media: cinema is like music, in that it has forward movement; it is unlike music, in that it is seen rather than heard. Cinema is like theater, in that it allows us to watch human bodies; it is unlike theater, in that it is 100% replicable and can position us at a wide variety of relationships to those bodies. It is like poetry, in that it generates emotional impressions based upon images; it is unlike poetry in that its images are representations, not symbols. It is like prose literature, in that it can tell a story; it is unlike this in that it is a flow of things we see from the outside, not of things that we hear from the inside. It is like photography in that it uses gradations of light and dark to show what things look like from a certain angle and within a certain frame; it is unlike photography in that those things move as we look at them.

As cinema is some combination of these things, some of which are more  important to any given film than others, The Passion of Joan of Arc is the consummate work of cinema. The 1928 film was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, from a script he wrote with Joseph Delteil, shot by cinematographer Rudolph Maté, edited by Dreyer and Marguerite Beaugé, and stars Renée Falconetti, a stage actor making her second and final film, as the titular character. It's based on the detailed records of Joan's trial in February and March of 1431, when an English-controlled ecclesiastical court found her guilty of heresy, a verdict made more out of a matter of political calculation than religious conviction, in an attempt to demoralise the French during the last phase of  the Hundred Years' War. 25 years later, this conviction would be overturned, and in 1920, Joan was canonised as a saint by the Catholic Church.

Dreyer made one significant change to the material: he removed any indications of time passing, giving the suggestion that the entire trial and execution took place over the course of a single day. This helps to refocus the story securely to its human dimension, rather than its historical and political importance; in effect, The Passion of Joan of Arc becomes the story of a 19-year-old girl, terrified by the monstrous men who lord their authority and cruelty over her, being raced along to her death and finding, along the way, the deep spiritual and psychological strength necessary to endure this ordeal without sacrificing herself. There is, after all, a reason that "passion" shows up right there in the title. For Dreyer, one of the great Protestant filmmakers telling the story of one of the great Catholic heroes, this becomes a tale of nourishing faith, of surviving a grossly unfair process by relying on an unyielding core of belief, the essence of who Joan is and what she has done remaining steadfast inside of her until the last minutes of her short life.

None of this necessarily means that The Passion of Joan of Arc has to be a particularly good film, of course. What makes this one of the greatest films that has ever been made - the greatest film, I would say, but let's not get bogged down in particulars - is how Dreyer has gotten at this content. For all of those things I said about cinema at the start of this review, The Passion of Joan of Arc offers a much simpler summary: cinema is the human face. This is the film's genius, one that has almost never been attempted, let alone matched (I would suggest that Ingmar Bergman's 1973 Scenes from a Marriage is its one equal, and that is not, after all, a feature film, but television). It is not true at all, as it's sometimes claimed, that The Passion of Joan of Arc is shot entirely in close-ups; it's also not true that it's shot entirely in close-ups and medium shots. But certainly a huge percentage of the overall whole consists of close-ups, and it is a film that famously refuses to establish locations (the closest we ever get is an extreme long shot through a portcullis of several people gathering to riot after Joan has been burned at the stake; it's as if, once she has been released from her suffering, the film has no more need of its unbearably intense aesthetic), meaning that those close-ups exist in an unusually pure state, unburdened by carrying any sense of space or weight.

It is, in short, a film about faces. There are a few cinematic tricks Dreyer and his collaborators use to get the most out of those faces. One is that nobody in the film wears make-up, so the light catches their skin in all its imperfect glory, and the smallest details of flesh seem to spring out with evocative humanity. Another is that Joan is lit softly, while her interlocutors, led by the craggy Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Eugène Silvain) are much harder, exaggerating the difference between her extreme spiritual piety and their fleshy, worldy viciousness. Still another is that the film does play with shot scales a bit: Joan is almost always in close-ups, but the rest of the cast vary, so that they at times seem to be pouncing at her, darting forward to make attacks and then returning to a distance to watch and see if she's bleeding. And there are changes in composition even within the narrow confines of the close- up: sometimes, the judges are framed with their faces low, even at nose level, with the distinct effect of focusing our attention on their hungry, leering eyes. Joan herself... but let us hold to discuss Joan herself.

As much as the film uses all the tricks available to the filmmaker 1928 to guide our understanding of the characters and their relationships, it ultimately relies on the expressive power of the faces themselves, and so it must trust the cast completely. These are not Eisensteinian "types", nor are they Bresson's models, stripped of all affect so the filmmaker can guide us through the performances mechanically; the actors in The Passion of Joan of Arc must make the most unfathomably subtle shifts and know exactly how they will affect the viewer. And this is most powerfully true for Falconetti, whose work as Joan is easy to hyperbollically praise as the best screen performance ever, since we don't know her from anything else and are thus able to completely sink into her transformation into the character. But it's worth pointing out that something is encouraging that kind of hyperbole. Every time she gently lowers her chin to break sadly away from her tormentors' gaze, it carries an exhausting weight of sorrow and pain (even more so if one watches in 20 frames per second, which has only recently become a possibility - for most of the film's life, it was available only in 24 frames per second, in those lucky times when it was available at all - prior to 1981, when a pristine copy was found in a hospital in Norway, it existed only in degraded and butchered copies based on an entirely different set of takes. At 20fps, the movements are more natural and thus more thoughtful and heavy). When she prays, and slightly stiffens her neck and widens her mouth, the feeling of ecstasy in the presence of something greater than the self shines through with a force unmatched in the rest of cinema. The look of scared resolve at the moment she elects to recant her confession, face her death, and be true to her God, which Falconetti plays by keeping her eyes steady and slightly flexing the muscles in her mouth, is a moment of unmatched triumph even as it is heartbreaking.

Her performance, magnificent as it is, does not exist in a vacuum. Maté did something ingenious with eye lighting in this film: early on, when she's at her most panicked and pathetic, we see bright, almost blinding reflections of the stage lights in her eyes. Later, as she grows more resigned, those lights are taken away, leaving her face grey and mottled rather than smooth and white. During her prayer, in a magnificent composition that's the one time in the whole movie where we can see a background over her shoulder - a cross hanging on the wall, naturally! - her face is well lit, but without the eye lights making her seem manic and lost, and this is the lighting that will carry through the execution.

The performance and cinematography combine to make Joan one of the most expressively rich characters in cinema. She is a child, and a soldier; she is a wild zealot, and a pure believer; she is scared out of her wits and she is confident that her strength will carry her past her enemies. All of this come through in filmmaking that has been stripped clean to the bone, but whose unyielding simplicity reads as remarkably rich artistic sophistication. I will always connect The Passion of Joan of Arc with 1927's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, the two films from the very end of the silent period that demonstrated the full expressive potential of the visual medium, but as much as I remain in awe of how Sunrise creates such a wild, phantasmagorical whirlwind of dream-like images and reality-bending visual effects, there is something more awesome still about how The Passion of Joan of Arc does everything with nothing, creating an overwhelming moral universe out of strong facial expressions being collided together using editing techniques learned from the Soviet Montage filmmakers but without their complicated notions of ideology and psychology. The Passion of Joan of Arc is the purest movie, reducing cinema to only its most necessary essence, and for that reason it has long struck me as the medium's towering masterpiece.