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The Song of Bernadette (1943)
"For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible." title card
I seem to be seeing all the movies about France lately. Well, seeing as how this is among the very best, I dedicate this review to my esteemed Francophile friend, ifif1938.
The Song of Bernadette is the story of a young girl who saw the apparition of the Virgin Mary in the village of Lourdes, in 1858. Lourdes is a French village in the Pyrenees, not far from Spain - it was also featured in Behold a Pale Horse.
Henry King (Twelve O'clock High) directed The Song of Bernadette and this was an inspired job. The film has been restored and a comparison between the flawed elements and the pristine new print is very interesting to peruse as a part of the DVD extra features. The Arthur C. Miller (The Ox-bow Incident) cinematography is absolutely wonderful and really adds to the movie's appeal as does the well-mated Alfred Newman score, which is dignified and respectful without a sign of his usual bombast.
Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) is the daughter of a poor family, sickly and slow to learn, possibly due to her asthma. Her father can only get work by performing odd jobs; her mother takes in washing; and her family lives in the abandoned town jail. One day out collecting wood, she sees an apparition of "a beautiful lady all dressed in white with golden roses on her feet." Of course, it was the Virgin Mary, but Bernadette apparently did not recognize this at the time.
Upon gaining her vision, the family's luck turns around completely - Bernadette becomes healthy, the father and mother both get jobs, and neighbors generously share their bounty with them. Bernadette tries to keep going back to the grotto where she saw the vision but the family is against it, indeed the whole administration of the town is against it, and even the Church is against it, but the common people are for it. The matriarch of the family induces Bernadette's mother to accompany her to the grotto.
The apparition instructs the young woman to return for fifteen consecutive days. This becomes a sensation and the town fathers plot how to thwart the growing popularity of Bernadette's daily pilgrimage. When Bernadette uncovers a hidden spring and people's ills begin to be cured by the waters, everybody has to acknowledge that something special has happened. Well, nearly everybody - the city fathers are against the idea, and even the religious authorities doubt the veracity of Bernadette's testimony.
A neat bit of filmmaking shows Bernadette's father (Roman Bohnen) carting medical waste to the town dump where it is poured over a cliff into a continually smoldering fire, very similar to Gehenna also known as the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem, where fires continually burned and dead bodies from condemned criminals were flung in Biblical times. This same location forms the backdrop for Bernadette's visions. "That is no place for a heavenly creature," one character states, while another reminds her "Christ was born in a stable."
A theme emphasized over and over in the screenplay was "only great suffering will bring a person close to God." I had a little problem with that idea but that is an article of faith for some people and I won't quibble with it in an otherwise superior movie in all respects. Certainly it underlines the difference between the verifiably ill people shown with the privileged people whose hatred and envy of the good fortune of another causes them to suffer inwardly their entire lives.
The casting was impeccable with Jennifer Jones as the perfect Bernadette; Charles Bickford as the local priest; Vincent Price, in probably his finest dramatic performance, as the doubting prefect, Bernadette's parents (Roman Bohnen and Anne Revere); and, of course, the evil nun, consumed by doubt and envy, portrayed by Gladys Cooper.
The Fox DVD contains a fully restored print of the 156 minute movie. Although the film is about 2 and a half hours long, it does not drag and the movie seems shorter than it is. There are a number of extras included among the special features, including a full length commentary by several film scholars; a 45-minute Biography Channel program on the life of Jennifer Jones; subtitles; language choices; and theatrical trailer.
The Song of Bernadette will please more than just religious people as it is a well rounded movie that is a textbook example of good filmmaking.
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