The Song of Bernadette: “a film of faith, but not blind faith”

There’s a common lament among certain American Christian bloggers that Hollywood doesn’t make movies with spiritual content like it used to, which to this writer’s eyes does a disservice to interesting modern films about Christianity – The Tree of Life, Silence, First Reformed et al – and also glosses over how varied and interesting Golden Age Hollywood films about faith could be. For every Cecil B DeMille epic that restaged Biblical events as a blood-and-thunder adventure, there was often a more contemplative, small-scale drama like Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette, reissued on limited edition Blu-Ray as part of the Eureka Classics range.

The title refers to Bernadette Soubirous, whose visions of the Virgin Mary turned the village of Lourdes from a backwater to a place of pilgrimage which still attracts an estimated six million people each year. Soubirous is played by Jennifer Jones, in the role that made her name. (Literally – she’d previously acted under her birth name, Phylis Isley) She was, at the time, about ten years older than Bernadette was at the time of her visions, but she easily sells the youthful innocence of the future saint, delivering an unwaveringly sincere performance. Anyone who knows Jones from her later, more scandalous roles in Madame Bovary or King Vidor’s magnificently tawdry Western Duel in the Sun is about to get a major shock.

The film is mostly free of special effects. An uncredited Linda Darnell, who would later star in Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours, plays the Virgin as a haunting figure in blindingly white robes, but the power and ecstasy of the vision is really conveyed by Jones’s remarkable close-ups. During these scenes, director Henry King plays a canny trick, using the reflected light of Mary to create a kind of spotlight that picks out Jones’s face. Yet when other people, who can’t see Bernadette’s vision, come to join her they are lit completely naturalistically. The jolting change in lighting from the almost Expressionist close-ups of Jones to the daylight group shots underlines the fact that, although these people are in the same place at the same time, they are having profoundly different experiences.

The Song of Bernadette is unquestionably a film of faith, opening with a quotation from Bernadette’s priest Father Peyramale (Charles Bickford): “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.” But it’s not a film of blind faith. King’s film is very aware that the easiest explanation for Bernadette’s visions – as well as the fact nobody else can see them – is that she’s mad. It goes to some lengths to counter this, showing Bernadette as being an inattentive student with poor religious knowledge prior to her visions. In one of her visions, she says the Virgin mentioned the Immaculate Conception, which is enough to convince Peyramale. The girl who can never answer a question in class referring to a then-recent Papal doctrine? This must be a miracle!

Yet The Song of Bernadette doesn’t gloss over the fact that Bernadette actually claimed Mary said “I am the Immaculate Conception”, which is both theologically and grammatically incorrect. As the authorities move in, looking to first stamp out then exploit the growing interest in the visionary of Lourdes, this becomes a sticking point. Surely the mother of Jesus would be able to accurately describe the miracle she embodied? It’s to the film’s credit that they don’t smooth this odd discrepancy away. Instead, it shows Bernadette admirably sticking to her story despite overwhelming pressure. The possibility that she was delusional is not quite refuted, but the possibility that she was a liar is demolished. Like the changing lighting in the earlier scenes, it’s all a matter of personal experience.

This is, for sure, a remarkably mature and subtle viewpoint from a film made in 1943. It’s a fairly unusual one for a film made now, when most cinematic takes on Christianity are either mocking or unquestioning. Unlike too many contemporary Evangelical films, the non-Christian characters are not cackling villains, they’re simply people who have understandable difficulty believing Bernadette’s remarkable story. This, despite the fact that one of them is played by a very young Vincent Price, who judging by his performance as the Imperial Prosecutor was born iconic.

The other thing about The Song of Bernadette that feels modern, surprisingly, is the style. For sure, it has some dated elements: French characters talking in American-accented English, a lavish but blaring score by Alfred Newman, timidity around some of the bleaker aspects of the story (in real life, Bernadette’s father was an alcoholic). These are to be expected in a film that’s approaching its eightieth birthday. But Hollywood editing has moved so far from the gentle classicism of Barbara McLean’s work here that it now looks almost arthouse, and the film’s whole style – the tight Academy ratio, the shadowy monochrome, the blasted, Brontë-esque rural landscapes – really isn’t that different from how a modern director like Paweł Pawlikowski or Carlos Reygadas might address the subject of the miraculous intruding unexpectedly into a humble, hardscrabble world. People say they don’t make them like this any more, but they do – just not in the expected places.

THE SONG OF BERNADETTE IS OUT NOW FROM BFI

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