Thursday, 29 August 2019

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

Jennifer Jones sees visions of the Virgin Mary in the moving The Song of Bernadette


Director: Henry King
Cast: Jennifer Jones (Bernadette Soubirous), Charles Bickford (Abbé Dominique Peyramale), Williem Eythe (Antoinie Nicoleau), Gladys Cooper (Marie Theresa Vauzou), Vincent Price (Vital Dutour), Lee J. Cobb (Dr Dozous), Anne Revere (Louise Casteror Soubirious), Roman Bohnen (François Soubirous), Mary Anderson (Jeanne Abadie), Aubrey Maher (Mayor Lacade), Linda Darnell (Virgin Mary)

“For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.”

With these words, this worthy religious epic from the Golden Age of Hollywood kicks off its retelling of how visions of the Virgin Mary from one poorly educated peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, turned Lourdes from a backwater near the French-Spanish border into one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. It’s material that you could fairly expect to be pretty dry and sanctimonious stuff. But, surprisingly, it’s rather affecting and engaging work – and, although made with a certain workmanlike competence, carries enough touches of grace to lift it up into the second tier of the Hollywood firmament.

Bernadette Soubirous is played by Jennifer Jones – in one of her first screen roles, for which she became at 25 one of the youngest Best Actress Oscar winners ever. Until her visions begin, she is just an average peasant child, struggling with asthma, her parents (Anne Revere and Roman Bohnen) struggling with poverty, failing at religious school under the strict tutelage of Sister Marie Theresa (Gladys Cooper), and generally looking ahead to a life very much like any other. But visions of the Virgin Mary (played by an unbilled Linda Darnell) bring belief and devotion into her life, and she reports the content of the visions (and her discussions with the Virgin Mary) with an honest simplicity and consistency that wins many backers, not least local priest Abbé Peyramale (Charles Bickford). But the local officials of Lourdes, led by local prosecutor Vital Dutour (Vincent Price), concerned that these visions will impact plans for the town’s development and anxious about the hysteria they could encourage in the simple-minded, try their best to restore what they see as reason over the intoxication of faith.

Faith really is the word of the day in Henry King’s at-times stately, but also shrewdly worldly drama that mixes divine intervention and belief with a fair-hearing for the doubters and the arguments of reason. The miracles, when they come, are followed with several characters – not least Lee J Cobb’s coolly rational doctor – outlining the alternative explanations for why these people may suddenly feel they have been cured. Later Dutour complains wryly that it only takes a handful of cures among the thousands that come for everyone to continue to want – or need – to believe. 

But the film sides squarely with the truth of Bernadette’s visions, not least by stressing at every turn her honesty, guilelessness and principle. Questioned by various church officials – many of them terrified of being duped by a con, having been stung in the past – she sticks with an honest openness to the same version of the story over and over again. Peyramale – initially just as sceptical – is won over to belief by Bernadette’s sudden knowledge of such matters as the immaculate conception, when she seemed barely aware of what the Holy Trinity was while studying at school. 


King – a largely middle-of-the-road director, but who marshals his resources well here – clearly takes inspiration from Carl Dreyer’s films on similar topics of faith and visions in his shooting of Bernadette. Bright light and intense close-ups that study every inch of her rapture help convey the spirituality of her visions. When Bernadette leads groups to her visions – none of whom can see what she sees – light radiates around her and over her, but seems to barely touch those she is with. The cinematography by Arthur C Miller is beautiful, a brilliant use of light and darkness to skilfully sketch both the poverty of Bernadette’s background and the radiance of her visions.

The mood of the film is also helped be Jennifer Jones’ impressive performance. Bernadette is, in many ways, potentially one of the least interesting and dynamic characters in the film, but Jones pulls off the immensely difficult task of making someone stuffed with decency, innocence and honesty into an actually compelling and endearing character. A protégé of David O Selznick (whom she later married), Jones earned her place in the film with her ability to invest Bernadette with humanity, avoiding any hint of cynicism in her performance while never becoming grating either.

It contributes to a beautiful telling of the story, backed by a series of excellent supporting performances. Charles Bickford landed an Oscar nomination as the kindly, decent priest whose initial scepticism and concern that the crowd is being manipulated is washed away by growing belief. Lee J Cobb is very good as a stoutly rationalist doctor. Anne Revere (also nominated) has a protective warmth as Bernadette’s mother.

The film’s finest supporting roles though come from Vincent Price and Gladys Cooper. Price is superb as the man of science and reason who worries over the implications of fanaticism and the damage hysteria can cause, but is never simply prejudiced or Dawkinsish in his religious doubts. King’s film treats his concerns with a genuineness that makes both the character more interesting and the film more balanced. Cooper is brilliant as a Salieri-like nun, enraged with envy and jealousy that after years of devotion and suffering it is not she but Bernadette who gets the visions.


And why did Bernadette get those visions? The film is not crude enough to suggest why – Bernadette herself apologises for the trouble she has caused and her unworthiness – but it’s clear that it’s her very innocence and sincerity that makes her worthy of them. The design – and impressive score by Alfred Newman – helps to make the film feel as profound as it does, but it’s the balance that the film handles its characters with that makes it engrossing. There are no simple heroes or villains, just as there are no simple solutions. Like the film says at the start, it’s a question of faith. Those who do not wish to believe can marshal as many arguments in their favour as those who want nothing more than to trust in faith. It makes for a fine, balanced, engaging and well-made classic.

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