Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Song of Bernadette: A Review


When I learned of the death of Jennifer Jones, I realized I hadn't seen any of her films...not even The Towering Inferno. I decided therefore to watch one, and I went to The Song of Bernadette, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar.

The film is about Bernadette Soubinous, a poor, simple French peasant girl, who one day while waiting for her sister and a friend sees "a Lady" in a grotto. She is a state of rapture at The Lady's presence, but only Bernadette can see her. She has no idea who The Lady is, only that she's beautiful. After she sees The Lady, her family is suddenly blessed with good fortune. As she continues to go to see The Lady, others follow her to the grotto in the dumping ground to kneel and pray, even though only Bernadette is the only one who actually sees The Lady. As her visions continue and she continues to attract a crowd, government officials and the Church become worried that her visions will make her village the laughingstock of France or worse. Intense pressure is place on her to recant her story, especially by the Imperial Prosecutor (Vincent Price), but she cannot deny what she sees. Eventually, The Lady reveals her name to Bernadette. She says she doesn't understand what The Lady called herself, but repeats it: The Lady says she's The Immaculate Conception.

Ultimately, despite many hardships, Bernadette keeps to her faith, altering the lives and faiths of millions forever.

The Song of Bernadette as a film is extraordinarily beautiful and respectful of the story of the town of Lourdes and the visions of this young girl, but never once does it take sides. It never states that they are true or false, merely presenting the story. The doubters, primarily the government and Church, are not held out to be villains but are given reason and logic to repute the stories. In fact, one of the best points about the movie is that even though people like the Imperial Prosecutor are doubters, they are not presented as evil but as grounded in reality and thus incapable of taking anything on faith.

Near the middle of the film, Bernadette starts eating plants straight from the ground, then starts digging a hole and taking in the dirt as if it were water. The townspeople who've been following her think she has gone mad, to the delight of the town officials. She is shuffled out of the area, and your emotions let you down: you WANT to believe because you've identified with her so long you KNOW there HAS to be a miracle. If you have a cursory knowledge about Lourdes, you know the result. However, the tension that builds as one man refuses to give up hope builds and builds until it comes to a beautiful fruition.

For myself, the most powerful moment comes a little later on. A family we've met earlier with a sickly child is told he is within hours of death. The mother will not believe this, and carries her son out of the house and runs straight to the grotto which now has water that has sprung out of nowhere. She places her child in the's best to be seen, but I was surprised at my reaction to this scene: I got a lump in my throat and some tears began to form.

It helps when the acting is so well done, and it's highlighted by Alfred Newman's Oscar-winning score. However, there is something more. The film has you come to know the people, and treats their faith as something real and sincere, not foolish.

There are even moments of comedy. The officials close the grotto to the public, but the people won't stay away and a group is arrested for taking water from there. Among the peasantry is a well-born lady, who easily pays her one-franc fine and those of the other people arrested with her, then demands the water. At first the judge and Imperial Prosecutor, who is present, refuse to give it to her. It is only when she informs them that she is the governess to the Imperial Family and that the water was taken at the request of the Empress herself do they relent, and after it is administered to Emperor Louis Napoleon's son is he pressed by his wife to re-open the grotto. By the end of The Song of Bernadette, she has joined a convent but slowly succombs to tuberculosis of the leg and meets her God.

There are beautiful, haunting moments in the film; there are those mentioned earlier, but there is another near the end of the film. The Imperial Prosecutor comes to Lourdes after being sent away by the government for five years in an informal exile. He wanders through the silent throng of believers, and we hear his thoughts. Price delivers a gentle but passionate soliloquy about how even as he knows he is dying, he cannot bring himself to believe, only to fall to his knees, asking softly out loud to Bernadette, the girl he persecuted, to pray for him.

As for Jones, her performance is sublime. Her Bernadette is beautiful, one who is honest, simple, and pure. She is guileless, incapable of lying or denying what she sees and hears. Her story never changes, no matter how many times she's asked about it or how much pressure is placed on her from her family, friends, Church or State to do so. Bernadette never claims to have seen The Virgin Mary, only a beautiful Lady. Jones invokes the grace and quiet strength of Bernadette, and that is what makes her performance all the more extraordinary and brilliant. Jones portrays Bernadette not as holy or aware of her importance to others, but instead as graceful, and that is what makes us love Bernadette: not her visions, but her true heart and noble character.

We can trifle over little flaws in historic accuracy or its length (around two and a half hours), but The Song of Bernadette is a quiet, beautiful film about a gentle girl and the power of faith. As I saw the film, I was reminded of the words of Christ, who said to the woman who touched his garment, "Your faith has made you well" (Mark 5:34), and that from 1 Corinthians 1:27 where Paul states, "But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong". Bernadette had little education (in the film she had no understanding of the concepts of the Holy Trinity or the Immaculate Conception) and was able to resist pressure from the strongest forces of government and doubting Church because she knew what she said was true.

Nowadays, Marion visions have become an subject of ridicule. People see Mary, Mother of Christ in windows or toast, and while they MAY be sincere they end up making a mockery of the events at Lourdes and of Fatima. The difference is that in the latter, there was an actual vision of a PERSON, while the former involve mere shapes.

I have to state for the record that I am not Catholic, though I respect the private faiths of all. The Song of Bernadette begins with a familiar quote: for those who believe, no proof is necessary; for those who do not believe, no proof is possible. It may be that you may come to The Song of Bernadette as a believer or a non-believer. However, the film itself is one that tells its story well, with dignity and respect for all sides, anchored with a beautiful, haunting performance by Jennifer Jones. Those of faith and those without will find it an excellent experience.



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