Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Fox Studio Classics DVD
If you hadn’t seen this film, you might think you would know all you need to know about it from the following statement: The vision of the Virgin Mary is played by Linda Darnell, who is best known as a wise-cracking comedienne, who was pregnant at the time, and whose previous role was as Edgar Allen Poe’s child bride, Virginia. Almost sounds like an undiscovered camp classic, no? Fortunately for some, it is not. The Song of Bernadette is actually a very earnest attempt to make an inspirational film about the unshakable faith of a simple peasant girl. It is also, like so many films of our own time such as A Beautiful Mind and The Life of David Gale, transparent Oscar bait. What saves the film from being absurdly sentimental religious propaganda is the literate, albeit uneven, screenplay by George Seaton; the understated, graceful performance of its star, Jennifer Jones; and the powerful contributions of its supporting cast.
Every good Catholic boy and girl knows the story of Saint Bernadette, but for those whose childhoods were not spent being rapped on the knuckles with rulers, here is a summary. Bernadette Soubirous, a young peasant girl and asthma sufferer, lives in the southwestern French town of Lourdes. One day (February 11, 1850 to be exact), while resting in a grotto as her sisters fetch wood, Bernadette sees a vision of a beautiful lady dressed in white with a golden rose on each foot. After her vision, Bernadette’s health is miraculously restored. At first, she keeps her vision a secret, but soon her parents, the local clergy, and the town authorities all know about and doubt her extraordinary experience. Her parents want her to keep quiet because Bernadette’s story only draws attention to their extreme poverty. The church wants her silenced for fear that she will be exposed as a fraud. The local government wants her to shut up because she’s making the town look like a superstitious cultural backwater. The good people of Lourdes and the surrounding area, however, inspired by Bernadette’s faith, flock to the grotto in hopes of seeing the vision for themselves, but the lady only appears to Bernadette. In front of the throngs of followers, Bernadette digs in the dirt until a spring begins to flow from the ground. The faithful discover that the water heals the sick, makes the blind see, and even brings a crippled baby back from the brink of death. Bernadette, who claims the lady in the vision has called herself “The Immaculate Conception,” is now garnering national attention, almost none of which is good. She undergoes several years of examinations and investigations by psychiatrists, church leaders, and civil authorities, never once altering her story or faltering in her faith. Bernadette finally retires to a convent where she can get, for once, some peace and quiet, but she soon succumbs to a very painful and debilitating cancer. Many years later, she is canonized by Pope Pius XI. Thanks to Bernadette, you can now buy healing water from the spring at Lourdes for only $5 from, I kid you not, www.discountcatholicstore.com.
On the surface, Jennifer Jones’ Oscar-winning performance seems pretty good for a young actress, but not great. In this early stage of her career, it is difficult to compare it to any work she had done before (which was primarily in Republic Pictures Western serials under the name Phylis Eisley). The luminous, naïve charm of an adolescent girl seems to be just that, and not a performance. When you learn that Jones was 24, a mother of two, trapped in a difficult marriage to a less successful alcoholic actor (Strangers on a Train’s Robert Walker), and engaged in a passionate affair with one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, you realize just how difficult maintaining the appearance of quiet innocence and grace must have been. Because of personal difficulties, Jones never became a truly great actress on the level of Bette Davis or Ingrid Bergman, but her career was remarkably varied and her performances showed great range. Only two years after Bernadette, she would portray Pearl Chavez, the insatiable “half-breed” of Selznick’s magnificent fever dream, Duel in the Sun, and the enchanting tomboy plumber of Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown. A few years after that, she would portray perhaps the greatest sinner in modern literature, Madame Bovary.
Apart from the performance of its lead, who appears in nearly every scene, the film’s best moments come from perhaps its most unlikely sources. Vincent Price, who can sell a mouthful of bullshit in a Roger Corman picture as if he were reciting Shakespeare, here gets to deliver some thoughtful dialogue as the most skeptical of town leaders with the intimidating title of Imperial Prosecutor. Much like a witchfinder general, I would assume, it is his job to lock up people who cause too much of a commotion in the town, and he goes after Bernadette like a nineteenth century Popeye Doyle. His character is not all grimness and severity, though. The screenplay has more than a few touches of gentle humor and Price gets to partake in many of those moments. He also gets the film’s climactic final moment when, dying of throat cancer, he stands before the grotto of the Virgin and suffers a crisis of faith. He does not fully relent from his non-belief, but he at least appears to feel genuine remorse for his persecution of Bernadette. It’s a startlingly mature and ambiguous ending for such a prestigious Hollywood film, yet it is very satisfying.
The second bright spot in the film is a searing monologue delivered by Gladys Cooper, who plays a nun in charge of novitiates at the convent where Bernadette ends up. Equally as vicious a bitch as she was a year earlier as Bette Davis’ mother in Now, Voyager, Cooper, through clenched teeth, hotly professes her jealousy of Bernadette. Holding back tears, she confesses how she hates Bernadette for not having suffered a day in her life while she, a nun, has devoted her life to suffering in the name of Christ. The scene comes well after the two-hour mark and kicks off the film’s final scenes that include Bernadette’s final vision and death, but for me it was the emotional apex of the film.
The final and most unexpected highlight of the film is the small bit part of a bumbling cop played by Marcel Dalio. It’s a precipitous decline from a lead role in Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu to this, but Dalio makes the most of it with subtle physical comedy and just the right amount of mugging for the camera.
The Song of Bernadette is not a great film, but it is a very good film. It is characteristic of the kind of earnest prestige or super-spectacle picture that was always a stumbling block for an art form built on commerce and exploitation, but it is also a showcase for work by some genuinely gifted actors whose kind are no longer with us today.