The Song of Bernadette (1943)
The Song of Bernadette (1943)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 36 min.

Release Date: December 21st, 1943 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Henry King Actors: Jennifer Jones, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb, Gladys Cooper, Anne Revere, Roman Bohnen, Mary Anderson, Patricia Morison, Aubrey Mather, Charles Dingle

 


 

“F

or those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.” In 1858 in Lourdes, a village in southern France, the Soubirous family struggles with the lack of suitable work and the crushing poverty and exhaustion that stem from it. Patriarch Francois (Roman Bohnen) seeks odd jobs wherever he can find them, while his wife Louise (Anne Revere) tends to their children – including the older, asthmatic Bernadette (Jennifer Jones), younger sister Marie (Ermadean Walters), and two even younger brothers. At school, Bernadette can’t seem to excel, partly due to her unavoidable ailments, but also due to plain stupidity – as the cold Sister Marie Therese Vauzous (Gladys Cooper) proclaims.

Despite their financial woes, Bernadette and Marie remain in good spirits, cheerily going about their duties and enjoying the sunny weather. And Bernadette isn’t displeased with the attention she receives from hearty neighbor Antoine Nicolau (William Eythe). When she happens to see a glowing Virgin Mary specter perched atop a niche near a cave abutting the dump at Massabielle, she’s momentarily dumbfounded – even though she can’t identify the figure. Marie and friend Jeanne (Mary Anderson) understandably dismiss Bernadette’s sighting, though they’re quick to talk of the event. “She makes up a story to feel important,” insists the equally dubious Francois. Yet by some curious coincidence, the Soubirous clan meets with the sudden fortuitousness of food and a job. The shimmering woman in white visits Bernadette again, delivering various portentous messages – provoking wild imaginations from the townsfolk, who are alternately fearful and in awe of the happenings. “She’s an angel of God!”

“Girls of your age often see things that don’t exist.” Louise is primarily concerned with how others will ridicule her daughter – and, by extension, her entire family. The mayor (Aubrey Mather) and other city officials (including Vincent Price as an imperial prosecutor and Charles Dingle as a police stooge) hope to ignore the situation, thereby preventing an unwanted media scandal; but when Aunt Bernarde (Blanche Yurka), a respectable nun, lends credence to the visions, a religious fanaticism soon follows. “Something must be done to stop this nonsense immediately!”

The film pits the believers against the incredulous, the religious against the strictly pragmatic (or faith versus science), the typical parishioners against pagan attitudes. Fascinatingly, it also matches the elite politicians against the poor commoners – the powerful against the weak. For the people at the top of the food chain, their chief fear is of the assembling masses of peons. To them, religion is a dangerous fraud, and any time it rallies crowds, it spells doom for the advancements of civilization.

In a striking parallel, the Catholic Church (by order of the bishop and represented by the stern Dean of Lourdes, Father Peyramale [Charles Bickford]) also wishes to discount Bernadette’s apparitional proclamations, insistent that it’s all a ruse that, when found out, will discourage and disillusion their followers. The greed that spurns hypocritical, spontaneous religious fervor by the agnostic is comparably engaging, if entirely anticipated. It’s a collection of potent concepts often explored in film, from “Intolerance” to “Ben-Hur” to “A Man for All Seasons.” And they’re ones that remain endlessly relevant in divided societies. “The same argument has been going on for a great many years.”

“You’ve been duped by an idiot!” Here, accompanied by Alfred Newman’s stirring music, there’s a distinct designation that the officials are the villains, opting for irrational persecution rather than tolerance tinged with head-shaking distaste. Because of this, there’s triumph surrounding the little “miracles” brought about by Bernadette’s otherworldly communications; certainly more than there would have been were the miracles interpreted on their own without the interference of antagonizing skepticism. Faith is clearly a component of heroism in the world of “The Song of Bernadette.”

Nevertheless, newcomer Jones is convincing, the supporting players are strong, and the premise is thought-provoking – more for the examination of human behaviors in the face of opposing viewpoints than for the heartening elements adapted from the acclaimed, biographical novel by Franz Werfel. Still, the production values and the cast can’t save the film from its withering length as it chronicles numerous endeavors with fleeting verve; in its efforts to cover the full story, it frequently forgets to approach each act with consistent enthusiasm. A considerable amount of the picture is simply dull. Fortunately, the closing sequences include a glimpse of the impactful sentimentality required for a memorable epic – though even these moments are stymied by additional, sluggish, parting shots.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10