Wednesday 26 July 2017

Movie Review: The Song Of Bernadette (1943)

A religious drama based on reported events, The Song Of Bernadette is an engaging story of belief balanced by a reasonable amount of cynicism.

It's the late 1850s in the small town of Lourdes in France. Bernadette Soubirous (Jennifer Jones) is 14 years old and lives in a dank single-room basement dwelling with her mostly unemployed father Francois (Roman Bohnen), mother Louise (Anne Revere) and siblings. The family is poor and Francois struggles to put food on the table. Frequently sick and admittedly a bit dim, Bernadette struggles to learn her catechism at the Catholic school and is humiliated by her teacher Sister Vauzous (Gladys Cooper).

One day while out collecting firewood the image of a beautiful Lady (an uncredited Linda Darnell) appears to Bernadette in a rock niche near the town's garbage dump. No one else sees the Lady, but Bernadette insists that she was there, and furthermore, that the Lady promised to reappear on many successive days. Bernadette's claims are met with skepticism by her parents as well as Mayor Lacade (Aubrey Mather), Imperial Prosecutor Vital Dutour (Vincent Price), and police chief Jacomet (Charles Dingle). Doctor Dozous (Lee J. Cobb) is brought in to examine her, while local Catholic Abbott Dominique Peyramale (Charles Bickford) adopts a hands-off, wait-and-see attitude.

The local population starts to accompany Bernadette to the site, and news spreads of the visions. When a water stream with apparent healing properties emerges near the location of the Lady's appearances, the crowds multiply and the story attracts national attention.

Directed by Henry King, The Song Of Bernadette is an adaptation of the best-selling book by Franz Werfel. The story of the Virgin Mary appearing repeatedly to a naive girl is beyond debate for devout Catholics, but probably represents nothing more than overactive hallucinations combined with a strong willingness to believe among the uneducated.

Those whose lives are made better worshipping rocks and supposed spectral images visible to only one person, augmented by magically healing water and the sweet words of a fairly dumb 14 year old, will need no convincing that all this is true. But screenwriter George Seaton deserves a lot of credit for maintaining, sometimes forcefully, a sarcastic and opportunistic alternative narrative through the words and actions of Mayor Lacade, Imperial Prosecutor Dutour and police chief Jacomet.

This trio and others refuse to believe anything other than Bernadette is either sick or manipulative, and director King gives them plenty of time and scenes to make their point. Even Sister Vauzous remains among the sceptics for long stretches, while Abbott Peyramale rides the fence and remains troubled by some aspects of Bernadette's story. Only towards the end of the film does King tilt the balance towards reverence.

The running length of 156 minutes is quite hefty, but this is a story spanning many years and rich in characters and events, and King rarely lingers in one place for too long. The sets are limited but intricate. The garbage dump, the cramped Soubirous household, a bustling town environment and the more ostentatious government offices capture the rich mosaic of a small but busy society. Alfred Newman replaced Igor Stravinsky and provides an evocative but sometimes overbearing orchestral score that plays throughout.

Helped by producer David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones (previously known as Phyllis Isley) relaunched her career and landed the Best Actress Academy Award for her turn as Bernadette. For most of the film Jones delivers a monotonal performance, speaking in an irritatingly fake girlish tone. The final scenes, set some 20 years after the visions, offer her an opportunity to stretch and she becomes more credible. The supporting cast is deep in talent, with Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Anne Revere, and late on, Gladys Cooper sharing the load and all leaving a positive impression.

The Song Of Bernadette is a graceful film, and handles spiritual territory with sensitivity and a nod towards alternative viewpoints. Bernadette may have been a saint chosen to inspire religious fervour, or a dimwitted girl caught in a web created by her own imagination. Either way, the story of the passion she ignited is worth watching.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome reader comments about this post.