Based on the eponymous historical novel by Jewish author Franz Werfel, Henry King’s beautifully made film stands head and shoulders over most religiously themed fare from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Werfel learned the story of Bernadette Soubirous — an illiterate teenager who in 1858 claimed to see visions of a beautiful lady who was later identified as the Blessed Virgin — while hiding from the Gestapo in Catholic homes in Lourdes, and vowed to God to write the book if he escaped to America, which he did.
The fictionalized account of the visions and healings at Lourdes leaves room for ambiguity: No effort is made to address or resolve the local vicar’s repeated (and seemingly reasonable) misgivings about the phrase “I am the Immaculate Conception”; and the first reported cure, of the vision-impaired stonecutter, seems less than scientifically convincing (though it’s followed by a more convincing one). Key characters from church officials to Bernadette’s parents behaving unsympathetically without losing sympathy for them, then seamlessly redeem them.
The film’s subtlety and nuance allows its overtly supernatural and Marian premise to be moving even to non-Catholic and non-Christian audiences. Along with Jennifer Jones’s radiant performance, Alfred Newman’s Oscar-winning score, which powerfully sets the stage for the onscreen apparitions, is crucial to the film’s success. Oscar-winning cinematography and interior decoration create a nineteenth-century French peasant milieu more persuasive than typical Hollywood period pieces. Sealing the film’s aura of spiritual truth is a third act shifting the focus from supernatural phenomena to the redemptive meaning of suffering.
The Song of Bernadette was recently released on DVD with a number of special features; religious analysis on the commentary track from the author of a revisionist life of Christ is at times edifying but needs critical discernment.
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.
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.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.