Tag Archives: Movies with Nuns

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

220px-Song_sheetWhen 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.

Jennifer Jones

Jennifer Jones

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.

Vincent Price and Jennifer Jones

Vincent Price and Jennifer Jones

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.

Roman Bohnen and Anne Revere as Bernadette's parents

Roman Bohnen and Anne Revere as Bernadette’s parents

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.

imagesHowever, 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.


Posted by on May 27, 2015 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Trouble With Angels (1966)

imagesA very funny and endearing movie, The Trouble With Angels is one of those few movies to be directed by a woman, written by a woman, and about women. It helps that it takes place at a Catholic girl’s school, which means any men who appear are purely incidental to the story. It was directed by Ida Lupino, written by Blanche Hanalis and stars Rosalind Russell, Hayley Mills, and June Harding.

Two girls meet on a train on their way to St. Francis Academy, a boarding school for girls. Mary Clancy (Hayley Mills) was sent there by her uncle in the hope that it might straighten her out. Rachel Devery (June Harding), however, was sent there by her parents after her abysmal performance at the progressive school, New Trends (her father did not consider “planting sweet potatoes and learning the silent piano” as real education). The two girls become fast friends, with Mary the chief trouble maker who gets “scathingly brilliant ideas” while Rachel always happily assists her, constantly getting them into hot water with the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell). They end up spending half their time at the school washing pots (as Rachel says, “I wonder if my father knows he’s paying good money to have his daughter educated as a janitor”).

They smoke cigarettes and cigars, set off fire alarms, put bubble maker in the nun’s sugar (thus setting off a fountain of bubbles from their tea), sneak off to spy on a rival band, fake various diseases to keep them out of the swimming pool, encase Mary’s cousin’s head in plaster, give paid tours of the Nun’s living quarters and generally cause relatively innocent, though somewhat defiant, havoc. Rachel is gawky, but very endearing and a “born follower.” But Mary is the confident one, always scheming and openly resentful of the Mother Superior. As Mary says, “the only difference between St. Francis and a reform school is the tuition.” But through the years, Mary gradually finds herself revising her opinions.

The movie spans their entire time at St. Francis for three years. It’s a coming of age story, but it is also a movie about relationships. There is the friendship between Rachel and Mary. As fun as it is to go off each summer and be free of school, you can see how extremely happy they are to be reunited at the end of each summer when another year of mischievous antics and scholastic endeavor begins. There is also the warmth between the nuns, especially between Mother Superior and the math teacher, Sister Liguori (Marge Redmond – whose methods, Mother Superior says, are “newer than new.” She likes to set up quizzes as if they were a race at Pimlico). There is also the relationship between the nuns and their students, which is extremely warm, though more austere. And finally, there is the embattled, but progressively understanding one between Mary and Mother Superior.

June Harding, Hayley Mills

June Harding, Hayley Mills

One of the things I loved about the film is that there is no one moment  when Mary comes to appreciate Mother Superior. The movie manages that rare feat of having someone’s feelings gradually change without resorting to any sudden epiphanies, though there are many little scenes that trace the change from resentment to respect to even affection. Her evolution happens naturally, without her or the audience really being aware of it.

Although Mary never complains about being an orphan, there is a sense that in St. Francis, she finds a home and in Mother Superior she finds her first real authority figure – not exactly a mother, but in a way. That is perhaps why she is so resentful in the first place. But as much as she resents Mother Superior, she is also fascinated by her, always watching her and wondering about her choice to become a nun and  it turns out that the two of them are very much alike. Her Uncle George (Kent Smith) appears to be a wealthy man who goes through “secretaries” rather quickly and Mary seems to have been left mostly to herself. Rachel, on the other hand, does have parents who also do care about her and she is less in need of a home.

The entire cast is great, but Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior particularly stands out. I read that they originally wanted Greta Garbo for the role, but all I can say is thank God she didn’t accept. Russell, a devout Catholic herself, was perfect in the role, with her dry humor, expressive face, aura of authority and genuine emotion. She takes simple lines like “Where’s the fire?” and “God is on ours [side]” into utter gems of wit and irony. Wearing a wimple really does accentuate the face and Russell has a very expressive one, reacting to bubbles coming out of her tea, lemon squirted on her face, the girls dancing around like a bunch of octopi during a dance class, the unexpectedly short band uniforms (“We are a Catholic school, Mr. Gottschalk!” she protests at one point), and the school’s derelict boiler. But she can also register deep pain and grief, as she does when one of the sisters dies unexpectedly. All the girls find her manner of telling them cold, but you can see the pain in her eyes.

June Harding and Hayley Mills in yet more trouble with Rosalind Russell

June Harding and Hayley Mills in yet more trouble with Rosalind Russell

Hayley Mills is also good. She manages her character arch without ever throwing it obviously in your face what she is thinking or feeling. I didn’t see it the first time I watched the movie, but she uses her outward expressions and words as a mask for deeper stirrings within her that is quite subtle. But she and June Harding are also a hoot together, demonstrating a real friendship between the characters.

Among the cast is Mary Wickes as Sister Clarissa, the physical education teacher who also teaches religion. It is a fun role and also a warm-up for her more famous nun role as Sister Mary Lazarus in Sister Act and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. There are many more nuns and each of them have their own unique personality, though it took me two viewings to properly get them sorted out.

The script is almost perfect…and quite quotable. There is just the right amount of craziness without ever going over the top. It’s almost entirely about girls and women interacting – there is very little time spent even thinking about boys. It is very refreshing in that way; that women and girls can have a life outside of chasing men. It’s a very innocent film, without being childish. These girls must still learn about life. There is death; the girls visit a home for the elderly and see first hand how the nuns care for others, but also the little sadnesses and tragedies that come with growing older. And after making fun of Sister Ursula’s accent, the girls learn how she hid 34 Jewish children during WWII and was later found out and tortured by Nazis. School may have been a romp, but they must also grow up.


Posted by on February 11, 2015 in Comedy


Tags: , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: