Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Song of Bernadette is a tasteful Hollywood treatment of a religious story. The pious
ad campaign which accompanied the film in 1943 had taglines like, "The final fulfillment ... of everything
you are ... or ever hope to be." The film we see is certainly idealized, but it's a reasoned
argument for faith, that may or may
not have anything to do with the facts of what happened at Lourdes in 1858. It's also a very
satisfactory emotional experience.
This is an unimpeachably good production, with a very intelligent script, fine direction and
performances by actors who don't behave as if told to, 'hurry up and be enlightening.' It's a far
cry from the fossilized reverence of something like The Greatest Story Ever Told. The
casting of the radiant, compellingly beautiful Jennifer Jones raises more questions of Hollywood
aims and motives: When is one glamorizing a subject? Would the audience care about the film's
religious content, if its Bernadette weren't so beautiful & desirable?
1858. A French girl, Bernadette Soubirous (Jennifer Jones) sees a vision of a 'beautiful
lady' in a cave at her town's dumping area, and starts a miracle tale that snowballs into a
major debacle for the state and the church. She's harassed almost immediately by the local
authorities: the venal mayor Lacade (Aubrey Mather), the abusive chief of police Jacomet (Charles
Dingle), and the rational but harsh local prosecutor, Vital Dutour (Vincent Price). But Bernadette's
sincerity and the lack of an ulterior motive finally win over the local Catholic Dean, (Charles
Bickford), whose scorn melts into support. Bernadette passes several examinations by
church authorities to determine if she's a fake, insane, or a genuine divine conduit.
The Dean warns her all three outcomes probably have undesirable futures - in prison, an asylum, or
a cloistered life as a nun. But Bernadette replies that 'the lady' told her she would have to suffer.
There is no shortage of naive and embarassing films dealing with religion and faith, which makes the
The Song of Bernadette all the more impressive. At first, we think it's going to be about
the oppression of the poor, or a statement about the uncomprehending crudity of humanity when
faced with a miracle. No, Bernadette's struggling family is neither crass nor noble, and the crowds
which first surround the phenomenon at the grotto aren't presented as any inspired elite. The
George Seaton script makes no bones about the circus that grows around Bernadette's miraculous
spring, and charts fairly the simultaneous efforts to suppress and profit from her visions.
Very surprisingly, the film even has the daring to show the authoritarian Catholic Church, at
least initially, as hostile to the miracle. The local Dean (Charles Bickford) wants the rabble out
of his garden, and both he and his higher-ups are primarily concerned with their personal political
problems. What with civil and church authorities passing the buck, and harassing the young girl into
a bureaucratic pit, for a few minutes The Song of Bernadette goes in the direction of a
Vincent Price's skeptical prosecutor character Vital is what makes the movie
work, and it's one of his best roles. In contrast to the selfish mayor and police chief, Vital
is a man of principle who has chosen science and logic over faith and superstition. He tries every
kind of nonviolent persuasion and intimidation to stop Bernadette, convinced that her 'miracle' is
just hysteria, a social sickness that needs to be discouraged.
The movie is thoughtfully, wisely even-handed. No definite miracles are presented, and the vision
of the 'beautiful lady'- never claimed by Bernadette to be the Virgin Mary - is firmly established as
something she alone sees. Except for one shot of her feet, the vision always appears as Bernadette's
isolated point of view. Everything that
happens to Bernadette can be rationalized as coincidence - the 'virgin' spring, and Bernadette's
reportage of concepts she claims she knows nothing of, like The Immaculate Conception.
Avoiding a direct endorsement of Bernadette and her visions, the film carefully positions the
Vincent Price character to represent the rational alternative. This keeps things from turning into
a tract - at least until near the end, when the picture finally gives in and portrays Bernadette's
saint-like finish, with all her doubters and persecutors conquered. Price remains discouraged but
skeptical until the film's only cheap scene, where he reveals that his previous atheism has made
him lonely and miserable. Faced with death, he has a conversion at the grotto that throws the
score solidly in God's favor. The show still retains its dignity, more dignity than, say, Schindler's
List's sudden eruption of sentimental slop just before its finish: "I could have saved more!".
Within the limitations of honesty that could be reasonably expected from a 1943 Hollywood picture,
this is still a triumph. I'm surprised the Catholic Church didn't come down on it for not showing their
representatives as being virtuous and infallible from the start. It's a huge credit to Fox, and perhaps
Darryl Zanuck, for not letting this picture turn into faith-kitsch, a Bells of St. Lourdes.
One couldn't ask for more from Jennifer Jones, a remarkable actress from whose face emotions radiate
like heavenly grace. She was in her twenties and had two children when she played Bernadette, and her
convincing adolescent innocence can't be explained away by acting professionalism. Her mentor David O.
Selznick later placed her in one overboiled romantic part after another, each of which she overcame
with her incredible talent - in a couple of scenes in
Portrait of Jennie, she plays an even
younger girl, and even more convincingly. At the time, audiences were convinced
Jones was about 15 or so, which made it all the more puzzling when her divorce from Robert Walker
and breaking-up of the Selznick marriage quickly followed.
1946 must have been a year of
disillusion for moviegoers, what with Bernadette and the Dean of Lourdes (Jones and Bickford) playing
fiancees (briefly) in the grossly oversexed
Duel in the Sun. Part of the popularity of
the Western epic had to be the See-Bernadette-In-Heat factor. The beatific Beautiful Lady
of Bernadette's vision was played by Zanuck's girlfriend Linda Darnell, who became the
hot-to-trot Restoration floozie of Forever Amber - although I'm not sure her divine cameo was
publicized at the time.
The talent on display in small, well-integrated roles is very impressive. Lee J. Cobb cruises in
and out as a thoughtful doctor. Gladys Cooper (Now, Voyager, The Pirate) is terrific
as a harsh nun jealous of the young novitiate; Earth-woman Anne Revere (Body and Soul) is
Bernadette's strong mother, and
the weak Roman Bohnen (The Best Years of Our Lives) her father. King and Zanuck sure could
pick 'em, bringing over the excellent Edith Barrett (The Ghost Ship) from RKO, for a tiny but
impressive bit. All the casting is equally careful.
Produced under the strait-jacket of studio, church and censor oversight, religious movies are rarely
as good as this one. Belief becomes a crippling problem with well-intentioned
Church-initiated projects, the kind that usually have much too much proselytizing to do. 1
Like it or not, movies about miracles become fantasies, and when the makers insist the fantasies are
something gets lost in the translation, just the way The Exorcist, a fantastic film coming
from the other end of the spectrum, goes too far when it claims to be presenting a literal Truth
with no leeway for interpretation. The Song of Bernadette saw and avoided that trap 60
years ago; most movies today are so dumbed-down, its intelligent approach now seems inspired.
Last note: Alfred Newman's quietly ecstatic music for the visions, holds long, tremulous notes
that are almost painful in their wistfulness. They remind me very strongly of the eclectic
John William's very similar music in the alien encounter section of
Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Fox's Studio Classics DVD of The Song of Bernadette is a beauty, as can be seen in
the restoration demo included as a special feature. An entire Biography episode on Jennifer Jones
provides a slightly glossed-over version of the 'great lady's' career, but sticks nicely to the
facts. An audio commentary provides the views of a Jennifer Jones biographer (Edward Z. Epstein), an
Alfred Newman biographer (John Burlingame) and noted Hitchcock critic Donald Spoto.
newsreel excerpt shows a nervous Jones delivering an awkward short speech about the boys overseas
(one can imagine it being hurriedly scribbled for her by Selznick on a napkin) and being hustled
about by Milton Berle. There's also a theatrical trailer, filled with the necessary but depressing
hype for the film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Song of Bernadette rates:
Supplements: Commentary, Biography episode on Jennifer Jones, Newsreel excerpt,
restoration comparison, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May, 2003
1. Savant once cut
a trailer for such a movie, China Cry. I wish I had a voice tape of the client producer,
who actually went around using lines like, "Hey, it made a believer out of me!", to mean, "Right on!"
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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