Directed by Henry King
Movies of a religious nature are a bit difficult to approach objectively. If they are rooted in a belief you share, they play much better than if you don’t share the belief or if you have no belief to speak of.
Still, a movie is a movie. It tells a story visually and on that basis it should stand or fall.
In the case of The Song of Bernadette, it stands pretty well though, as often happens with a movie of this kind, it’s a little more earnest than I’m comfortable with.
In the best traditional, if conventional style, the film tells the story of Bernadette of Lourdes who, it is believed by some, was visited on several occasions by Mary, the mother of Jesus.
While such a visitation is a miraculous event for anyone, it is particularly so in the Roman Catholic faith where Mary plays a significant role. (The study is called Mariology.)
Bernadette is a girl with health problems and her family is very poor. She doesn’t do well in school partly because she misses so much due to those health problems.
The movie emphasizes the fact she is innocent, pious and uneducated. The movie also emphasizes the family’s poverty as well as the authoritarian, even oppressive role the Roman Catholic Church plays in the lives of everyone.
(The movie portrays priests and nuns negatively, initially. They are rigid in their roles of authority and not open to any challenges. However, as belief grows in Bernadette’s vision, so do those characters begin to bend.)
One day Bernadette is out and meets someone she calls “the beautiful lady.” I’m not sure she ever says in the movie that it is Mary. She certainly doesn’t contend this in the first part of the film.
This is partly a reflection of her innocence. It is others who make the leap and say the woman she met is the Blessed Virgin.
The movie recounts the disbelief Bernadette is met with and the change in everyone around her as the power of her conviction and piety, and her simplicity, transforms them.
The movie also shows the rigidness of authority — the Church’s and that of the ruling political leaders. (Vincent Price plays a cynical, unbelieving Imperial Prosecutor.)
The movie becomes an argument for faith against the of lack of faith. It succeeds partly because, like Bernadette, it tells its story simply. It never tries to overwhelm. Rather, it remains true to the story and steadfastly tells it plainly.
It also succeeds because of a young Jennifer Jones, in her first film, playing Bernadette. She captures the innocence and simplicity of a young, rural girl very well. Her face expresses Bernadette’s wonder and quiet passion without ever falling into the trap of an idiot’s awestruck glaze.
In the end, The Song of Bernadette tells a remarkable 19th – 20th century folk tale that some believe is true and others don’t.
Regardless of how we might feel about the truth of the story, the movie captures what a life of faith is like and the joy such belief brings to those who have it.
As an interesting contrast, see Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun. The character she plays in Bernadette and Duel are worlds apart.