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The Song of Bernadette (1943)


John Drew
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There wasn't a thread for this film, so I thought I'd start one. It does appear at number 99 in the A&F Top 100. Unfortunately it is to announce that Oscar winner Jennifer Jones has passed away at age 90.

Story here.

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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It's quite a good film, maybe the best of Golden Age Hollywood's religious dramas. In part, I suspect, because the author of the source material was Jewish.

I've never written a real review, but I did write a capsule.

I don't think I've ever seen Jones in anything else.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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I saw this over the summer and enjoyed it to. It's one of the film's classed as a hagiopic by Pamela Grace (The Religious Film) and hers is a very interesting analysis, particularly the way the film leaves it's options open until almost the very end etc.

As someone who knew almost nothing about Lourdes I found it very informative - although I did rather take it with a pinch of salt.

Matt

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  • 4 months later...

The Song of Bernadette, Henry King’s 1943 film about a young woman who believes she has visions of a mysterious lady in a grotto, has much to recommend it—the technical nuance, the less-sentimental-than-expected portrayal of miraculous events, and a fine performance by the lead actress, Jennifer Jones.

That said, let’s state up front: this is a film about a saint. As such, the dramatic conflict comes less from within Bernadette, and more from the resistance she meets outside herself. I say less because while a saintly figure, Bernadette is also a young woman, and as such is given to bouts of frustration. But in spite of her youth, after seeing the vision she never doubts it, she always answers in perfect concert with the mysterious lady’s intentions in mind, and she carries a kind of tranquil manner about her.

In the events and characters that swirl around Bernadette, the film goes to great pains to create doubt, whether by the filming of certain events, or by the incessant questions raised by the bishop and certain government officials. This works to a large degree in keeping the narrative engaging, though cutting ten or twenty minutes from the 140+ minute-film wouldn’t hurt.

Without a doubt, the film is straight-up hagiography, which is not at all meant as a criticism, but rather as a descriptive term. Personally, I don’t tend to go in for these kinds of stories, but in the case of Bernadette, the film wore down most of my defenses. The key factor in this has to be the innate simplicity that Jones brings to the role of Bernadette—there’s an appealing naivete about the young woman that engaged me.

The world I live in has too little simplicity in it. Everything’s complicated, so some say. Well, yes and no. Everything is complicated, but like that very statement—and depending on how you look at life—many things are simpler than they seem. Bernadette was a nice reminder of what a simple life lived in simple faith might look like.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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Thanks to the admins for combining these two threads. I've deleted my "ahem".

John, have you read Pamela Grace's take on this film and "hagiopics" in general. It's fascinating analysis. Her basic thrust is that the presence of doubt widens the potential audience, throwing unbelievers a bone - at least until towards the end. She sees it as a common feature of "Hagiopics". I've reviewed her book somewhere on my blog.

Matt

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I've not seen that book, Matt. Thanks for highlighting it. In light of Grace's point on doubt, I'd be interested to investigate a sampling of reactions to this film, particularly those of non-believers. I'd be curious how convincing the portrayal of doubt actually is for someone not already in the club. Personally, while I think the film works hard to create space for doubt, I never once actually doubted that her visions were legit. On a narrative level, others surrounding Bernadette doubting her every step helps to create some balance, but I'm not sure the film actually brings us to empathize with those doubters. They always seem to be at arm's length.

Edited by John

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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  • 2 weeks later...

I posted a few quick thoughts about The Song of Bernadette on Long Pauses. Like John, I had some troubles with it early on but became more interested as it went along. I had to look up the cinematographer, Arthur Miller, and was interested to learn that he was working quite a bit with John Ford (Young Mr. Lincoln, Tobacco Road, How Green was My Valley?) around the same time, which makes me wonder how much Miller's responsible for the parts of Bernadette that I most admire. There's some really nifty -- and thematically playful -- vertical staging of space throughout the film. I haven't seen that many floors and ceilings in a studio-era film since Citizen Kane.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Link to Jessica Hausner's Lourdes (2009).

I can't believe it. I'm 90 minutes into The Song of Bernadette, and pretty much loving it, or at least very into it, and the DVD won't play any further. AAAARGH.

Edited by Persona

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I am soooo in love with this film. Easiest five stars I've given to Netflix in years. It needs to move up the Top 100. Oh my gosh, I'm so in love!~

I will write about it right now and paste my reaction here.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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From Filmsweep:

I first heard about Lourdes when seeing and reviewing the film of the same name. That modern-day movie focuses on the legitimacy of the miracles said to take place there. By focusing on one young woman's story it asked questions about the millions of pilgrims who trek there each year, and whether those who claim healing are reading miracles into their stories, adjusting their beliefs accordingly. As a non-Catholic with great interest in all the stories surrounding the Story of Christ, the film left me with a longing for resolution even as it dangled its main character unresolved -- she was clearly authentic in her belief that physical healing took place in her frail body. But was the event an authoritative miracle, or an isolated abomination of nature?

Lourdes ended nowhere near the resolved tone of a tonic, making it hard to forget or simply put out of your mind. It's like the prayer that you think may or may not have been answered -- you just don't know. As my introduction to the small French town, it left me hoping that one day I'd travel there and touch the wall of rock called Massabielle myself, and personally encounter the holiness of the revered setting. So when a friend pointed out the A&F Top 100, and a film that showed the origin of the Lourdes story, suffice it to say I was more than a little enthused.

The Song of Bernadette differs from Lourdes in that it's a Hollywood classic, it's in black and white, and its female lead, Jennifer Jones, took home an Oscar for her performance. But it shares similarities in that it probes the authenticity of the miracles, with characters casting a shadow of doubt over rays of hope, and an actress that is soooo delightful.

The greatest difference is this: where Lourdes can be so probing it can leave you in a foul state of over-thinking, The Song of Bernadette lifts you out of yourself, as if caught up to heaven in rapture.

The ever-so-simple, true-to-life story is that of Bernadette Soubirous, who in 1858, at the age of fourteen, had visions of Mary the Mother of God at Massabielle. An asthma sufferer, Bernadette was rarely in school and made no claims to a Christian education -- she didn't even make claims to recognize the apparition and simply referred to the visions as a beautiful "lady." Very soon her sisters and family came to see the lady, too, which eventually brought tens, twenties and hundreds of townspeople following close behind.

Bernadette had eighteen Marian visions, and she was the only person to see "the lady" each time. This caused quite an uproar in the community, particularly in a stern Catholic environment where politicians and priests quarreled for jurisdiction over the miraculous. Had she been born a few decades earlier she'd have most likely been branded a heretic; should she have continued in heresy the punishment would have been severe. One need look no further than Carl Dreyer's masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc to know that France has not been kind to its heretics.

Several miracles and a flow of spring water at Massabielle, where there had been no spring before, got the authorities off Bernadette's back and brought thousands of folk from surrounding communities. The film follows Bernadette into a convent and all the way through her early demise, tugging on heart strings the whole way. In that way it reminded me of Murnau's Sunrise. I knew it was tugging at all the right strings, but I didn't even throw up a fight. It was too enjoyable to not let myself be fully immersed in.

Jennifer Jones (1919-2009) as Bernadette is so sweet, so expressive, and entirely convincing in the role. She's filled with such child-like wonder, especially when entranced in her visions. Her child-like wonder spilled over to the crowd at Lourdes, and it spills out of the screen as well. It fills the viewer with wonder. Her friendly, gentle, and spirited manner is enhanced by lush, symmetric cinematography and exceptional lighting techniques that bring this monochrome palette to life. An hour into The Song of Bernadette and you've forgotten you're watching black and white. Color seems to express itself everywhere. Perhaps it lurks quietly between every frame of the film.

I don't believe a film like this can even be made today, much less garner all the accolades and sport the crowning achievement of an Oscar for its lead. Those who have the financing to create such a large and lavish production wouldn't even attempt it. They'd first say it wouldn't sell, and instead invest in a more skeptical story enhanced (or de-enhanced) with loads of unnecessary CGI. It would take a whole new kind of miracle for a modern-day studio to notice the pulsing heart that's celebrated in this kind of golden cinema.

Next year when our community again sets out to re-create our Top 100 films of art and faith, I hope my contribution in voting will continue to resuscitate this overlooked Hollywood gem, causing others to seek it out. I know I overlooked it for far too long. Now I'm happy to push it up the ranks of the list rather than have it sit at its lonely position at the end.

I guess I can't say it any simpler than this: Gosh, I really love this film. Truly. It's the easiest five stars I've recorded at Netflix in years.

Edited by Persona

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I need to own this, the commentary is rich. And it's GOTTA go back to Netflix.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 2 years later...

Finally just saw this. Just like the story of Joan of Arc, it's a complication of my Protestant sensibilities.

It's a great story. It invokes themes that are reminiscent of the New Testament. Miracles, unbelief, persecution, conflict between and arising from government and religious authorities, questions that science is incapable of answering, sainthood, innocence, suspicion of innocence, religious hypocrisy, mass hysteria ... what am I supposed to do with a story like this?

Jennifer Jones is suitably radiant. Charles Bickford is strong, menacing and eventually fatherly. Vincent Price is appropriately slick and scheming. (Price is also the best possible person to deliver lines like "I begin to see the folly of being the only one to do one's duty in a feeble-minded world." or "I'll be alone. Alone and desolate. And why not? It's logical.") Lee J. Cobb is nicely solid, fair and reasonable. ("You see my friend how deeply hell reaches into human life.")

I don't understand all the stuff about the necessity of suffering at the end. I probably need to finally read some Miguel de Unamuno.

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Finally just saw this. Just like the story of Joan of Arc, it's a complication of my Protestant sensibilities.

Just imagine how Franz Werfel, author of The Song of Bernadette, felt. He was Jewish. wink.png

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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