When my grandmother (Nana) was in high school, every year there would be a day when the nuns would announce that classes were canceled and they would show The Song of Bernadette. Nana and I were talking about the movie, which I had never seen, and she was curious what she would think of it now. We watched it and were both deeply impressed. It’s not theologically deep, but the heart of the film, the themes that it speaks to, and the story it tell is very moving.
The movie begins in 1858 in Lourdes, France. The Soubirous family are poor and living in an old jail while the father (Roman Bohnen) is out of work and the mother is struggling to keep food on the table (Anne Revere). Their daughter, Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) is a frail child, with asthma and she struggles in school. But she has a vision of a lady in white who asks her to come to a certain spot every day for a certain number of days and to have a shrine built there.
When people start hearing of her visions, it creates a disturbance in the town. Her parents do not initially believe her but eventually support her, with her mother, aunt and sister even going with her to the grotto where she sees the lady. No one else can see the lady, but soon people in the town are coming, too, and having communion there. This disturbs both Father Peyramale (Charles Bickford), who says the Catholic Church does not endorse Bernadette’s visions, and the city authorities, because they feel it reflects badly on them and is disturbing the peace, however peacefully.
But when Father Peyramale asks Bernadette to ask the lady for a miracle, a different miracle than he asks seemingly occurs. The lady tells Bernadette to wash in the spring, though there is no spring; but after Bernadette digs in the ground and washes her hands and face in the dirt, a spring is found where she dug and soon healings are reported. One man’s blind eye is restored when he puts the water over his eye (the doctor thinks he just pressed on the eye so much it excited the nerves) and one woman, in desperation, washes her dying and crippled baby in the spring and he is cured.
Soon people are coming from all over France to bath in the spring. Sometimes people are healed and sometimes not. Prosecutor Vital Dutour (Vincent Price) first believes that Bernadette is a fraud and when she proves sincerely to believe her visions, tries to have her committed for insanity. However, Father Peyramale comes to her defense, having begun to believe her. He wants the church to have a formal investigation of her claims and the miracles. It takes years and as she grows up, he suggests that she has a call on her life and should become a nun.
The acting is impressive, with Vincent Price, Charles Bickford and Anne Revere as especial standouts. And Jennifer Jones, who was twenty-four, married and had two children, is remarkably convincing as a child, and also quite moving.
The film is based on the novel by Franz Werfel about the historical Bernadette, who was canonized as St. Bernadette in 1933. Some things have been changed from history – Dutour is made into an atheist when he was actually a devout Catholic who was skeptical of Bernadette’s claims. But what the film has done with his character is to make him part of a tableaux of responses from people to Bernadette, and I assume that the writers wanted an atheist to round things out.
It is not clear to me exactly what the lady wants. It’s a little vague. She asks for a shrine to be built and apparently causes there to be a spring that can heal people. But she never mentions God or Jesus or has a message to give. Even Father Peyramale has trouble when Bernadette tells him that the lady said she was the Immaculate Conception (how can one be a conception?). But where the film shines is in portraying the the different reactions of people to Bernadette and her visions and what it reveals about them.
The miracles attract all sorts of people: the devout, the desperate, the superstitious, the curious and the opportunists. There are people in dreadful poverty who have no hope, desperately seeking healing. The mayor is at first opposed to it all, but as the people come to his city (presumably spending money there) he gets the idea that he could sell bottled water from the spring. Dutour is opposed on principle. To him, it is a reversion to medieval superstition. There is the poverty of most people juxtaposed with the desire of the city leaders to modernize. Reactions to Bernadette range everywhere from belief to jealousy; some think she’s mad, some think she’s a fraud and liar, a few people care about her – like her family and the man in love with her, played by William Eythe – and choose to support her because they love her, though they are not sure what to make of her visions.
In that way, the responses of the characters mirrors the response of many people to Jesus in the gospels. There are the droves of people seeking healing from the springs, as in the gospels people sought healing from Jesus. There is the skepticism from the religious community who are also concerned she will bring discredit to the church, as well as the concern from the civil authority. There are the people who ask for miracles as proof. There is the doubting, but loving family. There is the jealous reaction to her fame. There is pressure brought to bear on Bernadette, at first from her family, then from the church authorities and also from the civil authorities. All these things happened to Jesus.
The film opens with the quotation: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.”
Dutour cannot believe because he is not willing; it’s out of the question and does not fit with his understanding of the world. The doctor (Lee J. Cobb) knows some things are occurring that he cannot explain, but he is essentially agnostic on the subject. He doesn’t know what to think. Gladys Cooper plays a nun who is antagonistic to Bernadette. She cannot accept that Bernadette could have been granted this gift of seeing the lady when she has not suffered as Gladys Cooper’s character has suffered through life. It turns out that Bernadette has suffered – she dies of tuberculosis of the bones, a very painful disease, and never once complains of the pain. Suffering in life is another theme of the film.
However, Bernadette does not see the lady just because she is worthy or has suffered. There is a direct parallel drawn between Bernadette and the Virgin Mary. Bernadette sees the lady because, like Mary when an angel tells her she shall have a child, she has a receptive heart. She is willing to see, hear and to obey what the lady asks.
The movie leaves room to question whether or not Bernadette truly sees the lady. No one else sees the lady. Many of the miracles could have a natural explanation. However, there’s really no doubt by the end that Bernadette’s visions and the miracles are for real.
The movie is 156 minutes, but it goes by quickly and I found the film absorbing. It’s not just an intelligent movie, it is a well-made movie that is entertaining and reverential and stayed with me long after I had finished watching it.