For Those Who Believe: A Movie Review of “The Song of Bernadette”
Filming: Black & White
Length: 156 minutes
Maturity: G (suitable for all ages)
Main Cast: Jennifer Jones (Bernadette Souburous), Charles Bickford (Abbe Peyramale), Vincent Price (Prosecutor Du Tour), Gladys Cooper (Sr. Marie Therese), Roman Bohnen (Francois Souburous), Ann Revere (Louise Souburous), William Eythe (Antoine Nicolau), Blanche Yurka (Aunt Bernard)
Director: Henry King
Personal Rating: 5 Stars
As you may have noticed by now, I am a classic film lover. I am drawn in by the laid-back acting styles and tasteful sensibilities more commonly applied before “out there” became the name of the game in the way of emotional blubbering and battlefield gore on screen. I also admire the willingness of older motion pictures to take up religious themes without flinching. The Song of Bernadette is certainly among the cream of this venerable crop, and still has as much freshness and believability as when it was first released.
Jennifer Jones makes an exquisite performance as Bernadette Souburous, a sickly teenager living in the village of Lourdes, France. Her father, Francois, has lost his steady work as the town miller, and now his family is forced to live in a damp, cramped, abandoned jail. Desperate for any sort of job he can get, he is reduced to carting away infected waste from the local hospital to dump in the garbage pit.
One day, Bernadette, her sister, and a friend are sent to collect firewood at a grotto used for pigsty. The mission is ordinary enough, but an extraordinary series of events is set into motion. Bernadette claims to see a “beautiful lady” wearing a white veil and a blue sash, with gold roses on her feet, standing in a rocky niche above the grotto. No one else can see the vision, and many are quick to accuse the girl of fraud or insanity.
But Bernadette will not be dissuaded and holds fast to her promise to return to the grotto for fifteen days to meet with the Lady. At first, her parents try to stop her, but her formidable Aunt Bernard overrules them and even serves at Bernadette’s escort to the grotto. Before long, crowds begin to congregate to watch the strange events they believe may be heavenly in nature. Meanwhile, the local government officials, headed the agnostic Imperial Prosecutor Du Tour, struggle to suppress the apparition “frenzy” and avoid any publicity that might distract from their program to modernize for Lourdes.
Churchman Abbe Peyramale is also skeptical of Bernadette and unwilling to drag the Church into what might be a hoax. To test the girl he considers simple-minded, he orders her to challenge “the lady” to prove that she is from Heaven by making his rose bushes bloom in February. But instead of the specified sign, “the lady” instructs Bernadette to dig in the moist grotto dirt and wash her hands and face in the “spring.” There is no spring visible, and seeing her smear her face with mud, everyone thinks she is insane.
However, a young man from the village named Antoine believes in Bernadette, and soon discovers that a spring has indeed welled up in the place where she was digging. Soon after, a mason blinded by a flying chip of marble puts the water on his eye and is miraculously cured. Later, a desperate woman submerges her dying baby in the spring, and the child is also made well. These events start a wave of pilgrimage to the site, making the Du Tour and the other officials even more determined to stop to the apparitions.
But Bernadette’s sincerity and simplicity manage to win over Abbe Peyramale at long last, and he becomes her protector against the authorities who try to have her instated in a mental institution. Also, he is astonished by something “the lady” tells Bernadette in the grotto: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This reference to a newly defined Catholic doctrine concerning the conception of Blessed Virgin Mary free from Original Sin was never taught to Bernadette in Catechism, and the Abbe is inspired to ask for a Church Tribunal to discern her case. But when the local officials put the grotto off limits, the Church refuses to move.
An astonishing break-through involving a bottle of Lourdes water smuggled to the Imperial Empress leads to the grotto being reopened, and the Church tribunal finally begins its inquiries. As the investigation drags on for years, Bernadette tries to make sense of her newfound fame while struggling to find her own path in life. She is encouraged to join the convent at Navarre, where her old nemesis from her school-days, Sister Marie Therese, continues to treat her with harshness in order to “humble her pride”. In the end, it will be Bernadette’s saintliness that humbles the pride of her adversaries and brings about a spiritual transformation to all she meets.
In filming technique, The Song of Bernadette is an undeniable achievement, winning an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Starting with the opening scenes of François Souburous searching for work in the desolate streets of Lourdes, the black-and-white shots, emphasizing the contrast of light and shadow, convey a sense of bleakness that grounds the film in realism. Even as supernatural intervention becomes the center of the plot, a no-nonsense approach is used to tell the story of a miracle in a very honest way.
Acting and character construction are also very believable. Jennifer Jones is impeccably chosen for the part, combining rural innocence with spiritual wisdom in her portrayal of the saint. She also has a wonderfully angelic countenance during the apparition scenes. Charles Bickford as Abbe Peyramale, Gladys Cooper as Sr. Marie Therese, and Vincent Price as Prosecutor Du Tour stand out as unforgettable character actors, illustrating different types of people and their reactions to the baffling events that surround the supposed visionary.
Serving as a symbolic trinity of perspectives in the film, the three of them are initially hostile to Bernadette and seek to silence her. The tough Peyramale does so because he wants to protect the reputation of the Church in case she is a fake; the calculating Marie Therese because she is jealous of the attention she is getting for her apparitions; and the flippant Du Tour because he is an atheist who sees all religious expression as being nothing more than ignorant superstitions to pacify the peasantry. But by the end of the film, all three will have gone through a spiritual epiphany and come to realize that we cannot presume to know the mind of God.
This film is by-and-large by the book in the realm of accuracy, which is refreshing in lieu of the wild reinvention Hollywood writers often feel the right to produce. The movie is adapted from the novel of the same name written by Jewish author Franz Werfel, who knew how to make the true story come to life without warping the image. A prolific anti-Nazi writer, he and his wife were given sanctuary in Lourdes during the harrowing days of WWII. As a result, he made a vow to God that if his life was spared he would honor his benefactors by writing the story of Bernadette which had so deeply impressed him during his darkest hours. The result was a well-researched and emotionally engrossing masterpiece that transcended religious affiliation.
Some reviewers have made a point to criticize the movie for giving Bernadette a fictionalized love interest in the village miller, Antoine Nicolau. As a result of this plot twist, it is made to seem as if she were pressured into entering the convent when there were other options more preferable to her still open. In reality, the historical Bernadette seems to have quite comfortable with her own decision to become a nun, no romantic baggage to boot. This may be a valid objection, but I personally find the very light twist of romance charming and quite plausible. It’s especially sweet because Antoine stops Bernadette’s carriage as she is leaving Lourdes to tell her that he too has made a decision not to marry.
With or without the romance, love is poignantly realized as the Queen of Heaven reaches out to earth with a healing hand. But this is not your run-of-the mill Christian flick with a syrupy story line and perfect, hand-clasping, soft-sighing individuals who take miracles for granted. It has substance, complexity, and development with an emphasis on flawed individuals who change their outlooks and find redemption through person journeys of the soul. As we are drawn into their stories, we can relate to them because we share in their common search for the meaning of life.
The true legacy of Lourdes is about grasping for faith in a world of doubt, reaching out for something beyond our understanding, and finding it in the simplicity of a poor teenager and the earthiness of an underground spring. It is about drawing strength out of weakness and hope out of despair by embracing the sick and down-trodden of our world. The Song of Bernadette is an admirable testimony to both to the power of God and the strength of the human spirit, and as such is one of my favorite films which I watch on an almost annual basis. My favorite quote from it is the definitive one, spoken to Inspector Du Tour by Abbe Peyramale in one of the closing scenes: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.”
By Rosaria Marie
“The Song of Bernadette” is available on DVD on Amazon.com