Shot in France in simultaneous French and English versions, Jean Delannoy’s scrupulously historical, spiritually sensitive retelling of the life of St. Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Lourdes, long out of print for English-speaking audiences, is now available on DVD and VHS exclusively from Ignatius Press.
Eschewing both the slickness and Hollywood sentiment of The Song of Bernadette and the speculative psychology of Alain Cavalier’s contemporary Thérèse, Delannoy’s unembellished, straightforward account seeks only to tell Bernadette’s story in a clear and compelling way.
Coming only two years after Cavalier’s critically acclaimed but sometimes troubling film, Bernadette seems to have been unfairly, unfavorably contrasted with Thérèse by French critics, and was barely seen in the U.S. The comparison, though, seems irrelevant; cinematically speaking, the two films have about as much to do with one another as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apollo 13.
As Bernadette, 15-year-old Sydney Penny (“All My Children”), an American Protestant, brings a refreshing degree of spirit, even tartness to the role of a teenaged peasant saint who, like Joan of Arc, could put doctors and clerics in their place with disconcerting directness. The film’s approach to Bernadette’s visions is simple but effective: Instead of trying to show us what Bernadette sees, Delannoy lets the ambient noise of the brook fade away, and allows Bernadette’s expression to convey the experience as a simple tune by composer Francis Lai fills the soundtrack for the duration of the vision.
Though each scene was filmed both in French and in English, the English version (and probably the French as well) has been redubbed anyway, an approach that has at times been common in European films but may be distracting to American audiences. Ideally, given the story’s historical setting, I’d love to see Bernadette in French with English subtitles, but Delannoy’s decision to shoot in English as well as French makes such an edition unlikely. (Delannoy’s sequel, The Passion of Bernadette, was shot in French only, and the Ignatius Press DVD offers both English dub and French language tracks as well as optional English subtitles.)
Praised by the Vatican as “a sensitive portrayal of a very moving story that deserves a wide audience,” the film’s historical fidelity and reverent treatment have earned it perpetual screening at the Lourdes shrine. Bernadette is a must see for Catholics, and more than worth the while of anyone intrigued by modern miracles and extraordinary experiences of the divine.
If you own Ignatius Press’s original DVD edition of Bernadette, you owe it to yourself to give it away at once — and buy the DVD Special Edition. The new offering is the must-have edition of a must-see film, even if you already own the first DVD. I’m serious; it’s that much better.
If you don’t already own Bernadette on DVD, now is certainly the time, with this new release of the film marking the 150th anniversary year of the Marian apparitions at Lourdes in 1858.
Featuring a new widescreen transfer and both the English and French versions of the film along with a number of bonus features, the new edition offers the full scope of Delannoy’s lovely cinematography, as well as the opportunity to hear Bernadette’s story in her own language.
Delannoy shot Bernadette in simultaneous French and English editions. The original DVD included only the English version, but now Ignatius has obtained the French version, and the new DVD includes both. (The DVD defaults to English, so you need to choose the French version under Language Options and then choose the English subtitles, then return to the main menu and press Play.)
Also, where the earlier full-screen DVD cropped nearly 20% of the picture to fit TV screens, the widescreen aspect ratio of the new DVD restores the whole image. (One caveat: The widescreen is not anamorphic but letterboxed, with hard-coded black bars above and below the image. That’s fine if you have a standard television — but if you have widescreen TV, instead of a bigger image, you get black bars all the way around the picture. It’s still the whole widescreen image — just smaller than it should be.)
The special edition comes with a 16-page full-color pamphlet featuring information about the film and about St. Bernadette as well as interviews with Penny and Delannoy. There’s also a 23-minute video interview with Penny on the DVD, and a CD with three additional radio interviews.
Bottom line: Don’t even think of sticking with your old Bernadette DVD.
Given the inherently less dramatic structure, The Passion of Bernadette doesn’t “tell a story” the way the original film does, but the portrait of Bernadette’s unassuming heroic sanctity and occasional tart rejoinders remains moving and worthwhile.
Based on the historical novel by Jewish author Franz Werfel, the beloved classic The Song of Bernadette stands head and shoulders over most religiously themed fare from Hollywood’s golden age.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.