Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
The Song of Bernadette opens with the quote, “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.” To me, this is nothing more than an excuse to claim bullshit as real as long as people believe in it. And boy, is that what we’re going to get with this one. The Song of Bernadette starts with mummery, continues through with mummery and ends with the same. The opening quote is absolutely correct. For the religious, the story will be accepted without evidence. For the skeptical, the evidence provided is ludicrously thin.
So, shoes off because we’re jumping into the deep end of Catholic dogma with both feet, and I’m going to keep this short and sweet (unlike the film itself). The film is about the “discovery” of the healing properties of the waters of Lourdes. It’s worth noting that the Catholic Church recognizes 69 official miraculous healings thanks to the waters of this particular shrine. That sounds pretty amazing until you realize that about 200 million people have visited since the shrine was created, meaning the chances for a miracle cure are about 1 in 3,000,000. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there.
We start with 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous (played by 24-year-old Jennifer Jones), who is sickly and a poor student, particularly of catechism. Her family is desperately poor since her father, a trained miller, has been forced out of work. One day while hunting for firewood with a sister and the sister’s friend, Bernadette sees a woman clad in white holding a rosary standing in a cave. However, since Bernadette is such a poor student of catechism, she doesn’t immediately figure out that this is more than likely Mary. Upon seeing the vision, the family’s fortune changes immediately. Bernadette’s father gets a job and suddenly food appears.
Word soon spreads, and Bernadette comes under fire from both civil authorities (including Vincent Price!) and church leaders. After all, if true, this is a bona fide miracle, and it has been delivered unto a 14-year-old who doesn’t even properly understand the Trinity. Bernadette holds true to her visions, though, and when asked to drink from a spring that isn’t there, she faces ridicule. A little bit of digging, a spring appears, and of course, it has miraculous healing properties. The local cleric (Charles Bickford) now becomes Bernadette’s greatest ally, and soon the magical healing waters of Lourdes are used to save the life of the Emperor’s infant son.
That really ought to be enough, but it most certainly is not. We’ve got to get our dose of suffering in, which means that Bernadette will be made a nun (can’t have those secular saints, after all) and will be placed under the tutelage of her old school mistress (Gladys Cooper), who disliked Bernadette as a poor student and is jealous of her now as a saint-in-training. And, of course, we’ll end with a religious uplift and all the saints and angels praising the pious simplicity of Bernadette before the end. It’s the only way this can end.
Beyond the religious nuttiness that is rife in this film, there are plenty of things to complain about. First is the casting of Jennifer Jones in the title role. I understand the necessity of having someone capable of filling the role, but Jennifer Jones is about as convincing a 14-year-old girl as, well, she would be as a 50-year-old woman in 1943. Of course, it would be fair to think me talking out my backside, since Jones walked away with the Oscar for this role. I can’t really consider myself much of a fan of Jennifer Jones in the first place. She always comes across as wooden in my opinion, as if someone is standing just off camera with her lines written on a card.
Another issue is the inconsistent accents. Most of the cast, more or less, sound American, but now and then we come across characters who sound French or German because, well, the actors are French or German. But everyone is supposed to be French. Even the pronunciation of Bernadette’s name is inconsistent from character to character.
A bigger problem is just how mawkish this comes across. Any moment that is going to be interpreted as holy or special is accompanied by an effulgent soundtrack made of swelling strings. Any movement or line that comes from Bernadette is treated with the reverence of it coming from the lips of God Himself. The best parts of this film are Vincent Price and Lee J. Cobb, neither of whom were Oscar-nominated despite the four(!) acting nominations for this film.
Based on the story, it was a good bet that I wasn’t going to be in love with The Song of Bernadette, but I could have hoped for something that didn’t play so obviously to the lowest common religious denominator. Once the spring appears, the miracles come fast and furious. A stonecutter’s eye is restored, a child about to die is essentially resurrected (and healed of lameness) after being given last rites. It just never ends. It’s as if the miracle waters of Lourdes doled out their 69 miracle healings within the first week of the spring’s appearance.
If nothing else, at least the warning at the start is accurate. For believers, The Song of Bernadette is confirmation of beliefs held (at least in my opinion) without any real substance. For the unbeliever, The Song of Bernadette is cause for head shaking and frustration.
Why to watch The Song of Bernadette: If you’re religious, this film will confirm your beliefs.
Why not to watch: If you’re not religious, it will enrage you.