Originally published April 17th, 2013
Easter’s come and gone, and I generally don’t celebrate the holiday by watching movies; that’s going to change today! Twilight Time’s latest release is The Song of Bernadette, the 1943 Oscar nominated film which gave Jennifer Jones her first (and only) Oscar for Best Actress. The win is well-deserved for Jones, presenting her in a light which I’ve never seen before, or since. A story of faith, religion, and ignorance, The Song of Bernadette is a powerful movie, regardless of religious affiliation. The core reason it works is Jones’ devout faith to something the rest of the cast can’t see. With outstanding supporting performances from Anne Revere and Vincent Price, go out and add this to your collection.
Bernadette Soubirous (Jones) is the worst student in her school, but is visited by a “beautiful lady” only she can see. The belief in the town is that Bernadette has been visited by the Virgin Mary, but why this “stupid” peasant girl? As the town elders, led by the Imperial Prosecutor Dutour (Vincent Price), seek to prove Bernadette is a fraud, a series of miracles within the town force them to change their minds.
As Julie Kirgo details in an essay accompanying the Blu-Ray, it was hoped The Song of Bernadette could help war-torn audiences find a ray of hope. While Bernadette’s town believes in the Virgin Mary (and by extension, Jesus Christ), that’s the only religious affiliation mentioned. I’m a lapsed Catholic, and normally eschew religious movies because they are too “preachy;” not so with The Song of Bernadette. The prologue includes the quote, “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation will suffice.” I wouldn’t say the story is that cut and dry, but both sides are developed in detail with the final verdict left to the audience. With the US and England steeped in the horrors of WWII, The Song of Bernadette stresses the concept of “suffering,” leading to eternal salvation. Bernadette, the nuns, all the various characters suffer in one way or another. (I’m not sure if the villains are meant to be as two-dimensional as they’re portrayed, but I don’t believe they showcase suffering at all.) The students of Bernadette’s school are implored to never forget Jesus’ suffering, Bernadette’s house is a hovel where the family are literally forced to struggle daily. In fact, the Soubirous’ are a family of past wealth who have been laid low by circumstance, not too far removed from the various families of England whose homes were destroyed. It’s worth comparing this to something like Mrs. Miniver. Miniver wanted to show the “average” middle-class British family going through the war, and I was left completely cold by their obvious remaining wealth. They don’t struggle the way Bernadette and her family do. Sure, the Soubirous live in 1858 (and being French while having British accents), but they’re not struggling in middle-class surroundings. I couldn’t imagine Greer Garson living in the Soubirous hovel.
Bernadette wouldn’t amount to anything in another movie; she’d be a character actress who might have a small plotline that connects back to the main narrative. At the climax of the movie, one of the sisters asks Bernadette what makes her so special that the Virgin would reveal herself? The moment is hypocritical because the nun is exhibiting a “worldly concern” in her jealously – something that doesn’t belong in a convent – but it’s a question brought up time and again that the script doesn’t provide an answer for because what answer would suffice? Bernadette is quiet, mild-mannered, and allegedly there were fears she was simple-minded. The audience sees a girl desperate to be connected to the church; incorporating it into her clothes by wearing a veil mimicking a nun’s habit; she’s also a sickly goody two-shoes to her friends and sisters. An anachronistic choice is having Bernadette’s friend and sister talk like modern (or modern for 1943) teens. Jones is the one child character who embodies, not just the character, but the period.
I’ll turn to Jennifer Jones for a second. The Song of Bernadette marks the third film I’ve watched her in, and the first time I was floored by her performance. I applauded her work as Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night, but it’s nothing compared to this. Audiences are reminded Jones’ character is a child (the real Bernadette was 14 at the time); however, Jones wasn’t a child when she made this, being married, having two children, and carrying on a high-profile affair with David O. Selznick (future husband) at the time. Jones was “introduced” with this movie, despite appearing in previous movies under her real name, Phyllis Isley. It’s easy to say her performance works because it’s carefree and Jones’s face is angelic, which is true, but the fact is Jones makes you see what is not there. Yes, she’s cherubic, but she’s a princess raised to never put on airs (her mother calls her a “princess on a throne”) and you never get a hint of arrogance or confidence from her. She is a girl who doesn’t want to be special. The mix of pure joy and awe in her face when she sees the Virgin for the first time is revelatory. There’s a mixture of awe and childish delight, but you see the minute traces of fear, as well (Bernadette nods her head, but it looks similar to a frightened gulp). It’s a moment rendered incomprehensible because it’s downright sublime! I don’t gasp or make noises while watching movies, but Jones evoked a perceptible response from me during this moment. It’s true when a character says that Bernadette’s “exultation was so genuine,” and it’s there for the audience, and the cadre of followers that turn to her, to take notice of.
Two other actors stick out as worthy of acclaim. Anne Revere as Bernadette’s mother doesn’t command a significant portion of the screen, but she is gifted nonetheless. When Bernadette passes out and it’s feared she’s going to die, her mother sprints to her side only to discover the child has had another vision (which at this point, no one believes are real). You see Revere hold back the tears, not wanting to appear weak in front of her daughter and the others in the room, and she’s filled with just as much anger and fear of what could have been. She lashes out, but not out of hatred; it’s the wealth of emotions parents get when they believe their child is in danger. Vincent Price performs outside his comfort zone as the nefarious Dutour. Price isn’t given the over-the-top, villainous characterization which epitomized him as a horror star for generations; however, we do get a few scenes of him and his compatriots as mustache twirling baddies. He is ominously referred to as the “imperial prosecutor” for a reason, and he employs horror movie techniques, implying torture will be used on the little girl if she doesn’t recant. The impact is lessened because Price’s horror background renders it funny, but it cements his persona as the worst of the worst for threatening to make a young girl cry! The script changes things with Price’s character, making him an atheist – the original Dutour was a Catholic – which does a disservice to him. Complexity would have been provided to have a fellow Catholic believe these visions are fake, and explore why that is. It’s too easy to make him a man who doesn’t believe in anything but science. It’s a “what could have been” moment where you see the script hoping to cut corners.
If you’re put off by religious movies, I wouldn’t turn away from The Song of Bernadette. The movie makes several attempts to lessen the connection to a particular organized religion by making the themes universal. Bernadette, herself, doesn’t know what the Holy Trinity is, nor does she understand who the Virgin Mary is. The script removes the backstory that would bore non-believers, but allows those who do believe to enhance their connections to those elements specifically. The predominant question is: What does a miracle look like? Those who are members of the church or otherwise, ask Bernadette to have the Lady “prove” she’s there. As we should know from movies by now, just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there. I’d say the Lady is testing the town and their belief in her! I don’t adhere to all the tenets of the Catholic Church, in fact I disagree with a lot of them, but faith and miracles should be something to hope for. The fact that we can hope should be a universal concept in itself. As the characters of the movie ask time and again “Who are you to say she is wrong and you are right?” You may disagree with Bernadette’s visions, or the beliefs of the movie, but at its core it’s about desiring to believe in something better, just as the people living war-torn England desperately wanted to.
The Blu-Ray is beautiful and worth buying. The audio isn’t anything special, not at all like it was in Christine, but is strong and clean. Kirgo’s essay is a blend of analysis and making-of which is different, thoughtful, and engaging. The core feature worth utilizing is the audio commentary with Donald Spoto, John Burlingame, and Edward Z. Epstein. Each person brings their own knowledge to the track, with Spoto commenting on the religious connection, Burlingame discussing the score, and Epstein looking at Jones. I’m a fan of Spoto’s books, and found that all three are extremely intelligent in their respective fields. If you want a broader overview of the movie and its significance to Hollywood, go and listen. There’s a short comparison feature looking at the picture before and after its restoration, an original trailer, and the standard Twilight Time isolated score. Overall, it’s a comprehensive set of features on top of a beautiful movie.
As with my review of Christine, I have far too much written to include here. I disagree with some critics who feel you won’t like this if you aren’t religious. The story is robust, the acting by Jones, Revere and Price is sublime, and the movie has a graceful and beautiful message about hope that the country needed at the time. Add The Song of Bernadette to your collection!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.