Faith and Film Friday: The Song of Bernadette
Editor’s Note: This is the second review in our series, Faith and Film Friday. Read the whole series here.
Imagine a world in which a film about Marian apparitions and simple Catholic piety could score twelve Oscar nominations. Finding it tough? No matter, because such a thing actually happened in 1943, while the free world was struggling to fend off the Nazi threat and, in the meantime, Hollywood tried to focus on something more positive. The resulting film is now considered one of the true classics of Catholic-themed cinema.
The Song of Bernadette tells the story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, the girl of Lourdes fame, who in 1858 reported seeing a “lady” in a series of apparitions. Despite initial skepticism from the townspeople and local authorities, belief in Bernadette’s claims grew when a spring with miraculous healing powers developed at the site of the apparitions. Bernadette later unknowingly identified the lady as the Blessed Virgin Mary by reporting her as saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This title for Mary had been declared a dogma by the Church only a few years prior.
Based on the 1941 novel of the same name by Franz Werfel, the film’s origin could be described as a minor miracle in its own right. Werfel was an Austrian novelist of Jewish descent who narrowly escaped the Nazis after the collapse of France (his death was mistakenly reported by British radio). Unable to cross the border into Spain, he took last-ditch refuge in Lourdes. There, he became deeply acquainted with the story of Bernadette and the accounts of miraculous healings at the spring. Daily facing the possibility of capture, Werfel made a vow that if he ever successfully escaped, he would write a novel about Bernadette and the extraordinary events of Lourdes. As Providence would have it, Werfel arrived safely in America and published his inspired novel within a year. The book spent three months atop the New York Times best seller list before its adaptation into the 1943 film (other top best sellers that year include The Robe and The Keys of the Kingdom, both Catholic-themed novels made into films).
Perhaps The Song of Bernadette came at a most opportune time, when Americans sorely needed something to believe in—something not-of-this-world. But the film’s appeal goes deep, and its serious theological and spiritual content is well supported by inspired acting and a powerful score (Jennifer Jones won the Oscar for Best Actress, and Alfred Newman for Best Musical Score).
Reaching far beyond a simple retelling of the events at Lourdes, the film manages to say something profound about the role of grace in elevating the experience of suffering. Bernadette is shown as a girl who suffers much—owing to chronic health problems, poor living circumstances, and troubling learning deficits—and yet she countenances all of it with unusual serenity and joy. After the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin, she almost literally glows. Perhaps Bernadette cannot explain the operative role of grace in her life, but during her most difficult experiences, she longs to see the “lady.” Indeed, in the film, her visions of the Blessed Virgin come to represent the sweetness and blissfulness of the graced life, which Bernadette increasingly longs for throughout her short time on earth.
The film contrasts Bernadette’s graced experience of suffering with the bitterly mistaken view of Sister Marie-Thérèse, her school teacher and then Novice Mistress. Sister Marie-Thérèse believes that suffering is the key to salvation, with grace relegated to a supportive role; as such, she simply cannot accept that the Blessed Virgin Mary would appear to Bernadette, an ordinary girl who clearly did not “earn” it through voluntary sacrifices. Near the end of the film, Bernadette is dramatically confronted by her Novice Mistress, who delivers a monologue that is chillingly effective and memorable. Rather than divulging any more spoilers, let’s leave it at that.
If you have never seen The Song of Bernadette, watch it. And if you have seen it, watch it again. Commemorate the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes (February 11) in a special way this year with a film that captivated American viewers and won over even Hollywood in its rendering of grace and the supernatural.
Next week we will review The Island.