Thursday, December 4, 2014


Film: The Song of Bernadette
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.


  1. I always thought the J. Geils band was singing about mummery:

    My blood runs cold
    My mummery has just been sold
    My angel is the centerfold
    (Angel is the centerfold)

    Oh, and on a Freudian note: "69" is an interesting choice for the number of healing miracles, isn't it. Mmmm... sixty-nine.

    Is that Jennifer Jones in the picture at the top of your post? She don't look like no fourteen-year-old. She looks more like the reason we non-Catholic guys tend to associate Catholicism with naughtiness. And sixty-nining.

    1. Yes, that's Jennifer Jones in the picture above, although it's possible that that still is from later in the film. That said, she looks exactly like that the entire time, whether she's 14, 20, or stricken with illness, so your point still stands. I won't deny that Jones was a beautiful woman, but the minute she opens her mouth, her attractiveness drops by about 80% (insert your own 69 comment here). I'm put in mind of Joe's Garage...

      I've had people describe a miracle to me as a one-in-a-million event. On that scale, Lourdes is actually three times less miraculous than walking-around reality.

  2. Well, obviously we differ since I had this in my top 10 favorites. Funny thing is I always dread watching this since I have the feeling it will be just as described in your review. Jennifer Jones doesn't do that much for me but I adore the entire supporting cast. I also love the way the film was shot. And I think it's more nuanced than you describe. It helps that I am open to the remote possibility that a miracle could occur, of course.

    1. I follow Einstein's dictum that "the greatest miracle is that there are no miracles."

      There is a bit more nuance in the end of the film--I think it's telling, for instance that the emperor's child is "saved" from a fever of about 100 degrees. But it really does go back to the opening statement, and that's evidence of it.

  3. Beat the Devil is one of my favorite movies, and I love Jennifer Jones in it. I sometimes think I would like to see her Oscar-winning performance but I have never been quite able to make myself watch The Song of Bernadette.

    Trivia: This is the same Bernadette mentioned in the Tom Lehrer song "Alma."

    1. Who knows? You might find a lot more to like in it than I did, but for me, Jones is one of the downsides.

      "...Which one of your magical charms got you Gustav and Walter and Franz?"

  4. LOVE your take on this! Talk about wearing your piety on your sleeve!!

    It's easy to see why it was so embraced by the Hollywood establishment, they could point to it as proof of their appreciation of the holy and since WWII was still raging it was surely a morale booster. But it's treacly and puerile and while the supporting cast is full of great performers not a single one of them is tasked with a role that stretches their signature personas.

    I'm right there with you on Jennifer Jones, never has an actress been as beholden to one man for sustaining a prominent career as she was to Selznick. I've thought she was good in precisely one film, her last The Towering Inferno and that was more because the part required only that she be classy and dignified, which despite my distaste for her I have to admit she was, and game for the rigors her character was put through. I've given her every chance to impress me. Because of Selznick's determination to turn her into a great star her films were by and large quality productions that I've watched for other factors aside from her participation, the result being that I had seen all but two of her films and so for completeness I sought both, The Idol & Angel, Angel Down We Go (the last is beyond dreadful), out and if nothing else she's consistent. Consistently awkward and mechanical. In Bernadette she is drippy and wan...and of course not convincing for a second as a teenager. I can't imagine any circumstance that would induce me to watch it again.

    1. With a film like this, I think it's important that I list my biases off the top, which is why I'm careful when reviewing something about religion and miraculous events to go through my own stance on them. I'm open to liking movies like this, of course--there are plenty of religiously-themed films that I enjoy. This, though, isn't one of them.

      Part of that is the plot, but the biggest part of that is Jennifer Jones. Aside from her physical beauty, there is virtually never a time when I find anything noteworthy or interesting about her in a film. Since she's evidently a well-loved actress from this era, it only makes me feel more like a heretic than usual, so it's nice to know I'm not alone in that. Here, she evidently decided (or was told) that playing a 14-year-old meant being really dumb.

      But even if she were stellar, I'd have a hard time with this. It's so syrupy. Watching it again might well make me diabetic.