In a world fraught with conflict, violence, illness, and injustice is can seem almost impossible to maintain faith. During this Easter week which comes in the wake of another week in which terror and violence dominated the headlines, it is crucial to remember that there is more to life than the negativity that seems to permeate our world. This week’s review tells the story of an ordinary girl who through an extraordinary experience learns the full meaning and power of faith even as she endures public scrutiny, ridicule, and physical illness; 1943’s The Song of Bernadette. While the story focuses upon the true story of a girl who would become a Catholic saint, the film’s message of hope and faith extends beyond the confines of any one religion or belief system and has something to offer viewers of all walks of life.
|Who could interrogate that face?!|
The story begins with recently unemployed miller Francois Soubirous (Roman Bonhen) forced by poverty to take odd jobs and live in the city jail with his wife and children, including teenage daughter Bernadette (Jennifer Jones). Although a dedicated student, Bernadette’s poor health forces her to frequently miss school, earning her the ire of her stern teacher, Sister Vauzous (Gladys Cooper). One afternoon while walking home from school she takes a short-cut by wading through the contaminated river by the Massabaille caves and sees a vision of a lady surrounded by light and holding a pearl rosary. She tells her friends of her ethereal encounter, but makes them swear to keep her story a secret. Of course, the secret is too tempting for teenage girls not to divulge, and soon Bernadette is the talk of the town. All this furor draws the attention of local and church authorities who repeatedly question her story and attempt to dissuade her from visiting the cave. Despite protests from her parents and ridicule from the townsfolk, Bernadette continues to visit the cave and follow the lady’s often cryptic instructions. Eventually she begins to win over her critics when her prophecy of a spring appearing at the cave comes true as not only does a spring appear but the spring actually seems to possess miraculous healing capabilities. While the spring proves a source of healing and inspiration for some, its appearance proves to be just the start of Bernadette’s trials as the church launches an investigation into her claims and rumors swirl that the girl’s visions are either a cry for attention, or a symptom of mental illness brought on by wading through the contaminated river. The ensuing investigation is only the first step in Bernadette’s long and arduous journey to becoming a modern-day saint.
The film manages to be largely faithful to the true story of Bernadette Sobouris and her controversial visions while still maintaining an uplifting message and inspirational themes. Throughout the film, Bernadette is portrayed as an ordinary girl as she balances the familiar responsibilities of school and helping out at home, while still enjoying fun with her friends and a budding romance with a local boy. Noted for her poor health and academic difficulties, the only areas that she seems to truly excel in are her capacity for patience and kindness. Even after she begins seeing visions of the Virgin Mary, Bernadette continues to see herself as an average girl and struggles to maintain an ordinary life in spite of her extraordinary experiences. Through this portrait of a saint as a young woman, the film presents viewers with a surprisingly relateable heroine who serves as an apt reminder of the potential for goodness in us all. Bernadette’s story takes on an even more inspiring aspect in its darkest moments as she steadfastly maintains her faith in herself and her religion in the face first of accusations from church and local officials and later petty jealousy and devastating illness. She continues to face adversity even after she stops seeing the visions and reluctantly gives up all that she knows to enter religious life as a nun, but through it all carries herself with a humbleness and grace that are nothing short of saintly. By the film’s finish, it is not the otherworldly visions that viewers will remember as much as the extraordinarily resilience and inherent goodness of the ordinary girl who witnessed them.
|Only the real deal can convert the likes of Vincent Price|
While many religious films fall prey to stagey performances that are all atmosphere, The Song of Bernadette remains mesmerizing because of the realism and depth that its cast brings to the film. Gladys Cooper provides excellent insight into the ways in which jealousy can transform even the most devout into hypocrites in her portrayal of Bernadette’s teacher turned Mother Superior at the convent, Sister Vauzous. Over the course of the film, Sister Vauzous evolves from merely stern to outright vicious as she sets out to make Bernadette pay for her own inadequacies. Although likely the last actor most viewers would expect to find in an inspirational religious film, Vincent Price not only fits right into the film, but nearly steals every scene in which he appears. While Price was known for delightfully over the top performances in camp horror classics later in his career, his portrayal of local prosecutor, Dutour, is both understated and layered. His natural approach allows viewers’ insight into the reasonably skeptical official’s conflicted perspective as he experiences a crisis of faith and comes to question whether there might be some truth to the girl’s fantastic story after all. Despite the superb performances surrounding her, the film belongs to Jennifer Jones, whose luminous performance exudes innocence and grace without becoming cloying or grating. Despite the fact that Jones was already a twenty-four year old mother of two, she effortlessly captures the naivete and grace of the adolescent Bernadette with a purity that is truly inspiring.
More than a mere religious tale, The Song of Bernadette is a testament to the hope and goodness that is present in the world even in its darkest hour. Through its combination of a literate script and a talented cast, the film brings the story of the young saint to life without once losing its cinematic appeal. Through its chronicle of a one girl’s miraculous experience, the film reveals the ways in which faith can transform our lives. For a tune that will lift your spirits look no further than the lilting song of Bernadette.