Saturday, February 02, 2008

About Falconetti

I took a course on film documentaries in the 1960s, and saw “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” a silent film directed by the noted Danish director, Carl Theodor Dreyer. I was bowled over. Shaken. The performance of the actress, identified in gthe credits as Maria Falconetti, was uncanny. I felt that I was watching Joan of Arc herself.
I asked the instructor, who was that actress? All we know, he told me, is that her name was Maria Falconetti; otherwise, she’s a mystery. No one knows anything about her or what happened to her.
I did a little research into movie history. Everyone agreed that her performance was sublime, but…there was no information about who she was or what happened to her.
I was working for Pageant magazine at the time (who remembers Pageant?), and the editor, Howard Cohn, agreed that I could write an article about this gifted, mysterious woman. If I could find out something about her and what became of her.

The NY Public Library had two folders on Falconetti. One was devoted to Maria—just ecstatic reviews of her performance as Joan. One was devoted to Renee, a good-looking young actress with the Comedie francaise, at the time the youngest actress ever accepted into that theater group. Lots of information about her, hardly anything about the great Maria Falconetti.

I wrote to Dreyer, and he sent me some stuff he had written about Maria Falconetti, praising her to the skies. But he didn’t know what happened to her. Or much about her. (I had dopily sent him some US stamps, for him to respond. He wrote back: What am I supposed to do with US stamps?)

I wrote to all the Falconettis in Paris. Are you related to Maria Falconetti, who starred in The Passion?

Weeks went by. I gave up on writing the article.
And then a letter arrived from Paris. From Helene Falconetti. She identified herself as Falconetti’s daughter. And asked:

Why do you call my mother Maria when her name was Renee?

Electrifying! There was no Maria Falconetti! Just Renee Jeanne Falconetti!

I now had my story. I even found Renee Falconetti’s long obituary in an Argentinean newspaper.

I informed the NY Public Library theatre division that it should combine its folders on Maria and Renee. The curator gave me a hard time. But then Carl Dreyer sent him a copy of my article—Dreyer had copied it and sent it out to a flock of people—and today, there’s just one folder. On Renee.
My article in Pageant appeared early in the 1960s. I have to go look for it.

The fact that there was no Maria explains why the NYTimes, in reviewing The Passion in 1928, wrote “Maria Falconetti Gives an Unsurpassed Performance as Joan of Arc,” and didn’t run an obituary when Renee Falconetti died in Argentina years later.

I just helped start a movie club here in North Jersey, for a group of older men, and the first movie we’ll show is The Passion of Joan of Arc. Starring Renee Jeanne Falconetti.

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