Thursday, June 22, 2017

1943 - The Song of Bernadette

Well, despite having three more viewings in the can, I'm apparently still taking my time to blog about them. So let's get straight to it.

Here are my thoughts on another 1943 Best Picture nominee...


The Song of Bernadette
Director:
Henry King
Screenplay:
George Seaton
(based on the novel by Franz Werfel)
Starring:
Jennifer Jones, William Eythe, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb, Gladys Cooper, Anne Revere, Roman Bohnen
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
4 wins, including Best Actress (Jones)

In a rural French village in the mid-19th century, a timid teenager named Bernadette (Jones) tags along with her sister and a friend to collect firewood for their families. When Bernadette is separated from the other two, she waits at a cave where she sees a clear vision of a saintly woman. The apparition asks Bernadette to return to the same spot every day for the next couple of weeks, and as Bernadette complies, she attracts the attention of the nation. Despite not being visible to anyone else, many believe Bernadette is communicating with the Virgin Mary and flock to the site in hopes of being healed by the miraculous spring water now flowing from the ground. Many others, including her own parents (Bohnen and Revere) doubt her story. Even the Catholic Church takes their time to come around, subjecting Bernadette to many years of investigation before proclaiming the visions as an official miracle.

The Song of Bernadette initially unravels a lot like a mystery. Did Bernadette really see the Virgin Mary? Or is it a hoax? Or is she just delusional? The well-structured script creates some tight conflict around this mystery with barely anyone believing her at first. Slowly, though, more and more people become believers and her detractors are portrayed in such a way that they are clearly the antagonists. And since the film's verisimilitude makes plenty of room for the miraculous, it's fairly obvious which conclusion the audience is supposed to reach: yes, the visions are real. In fact, anyone with a modicum of familiarity with religious-themed films, especially of the classic era, could probably have guessed that from the outset.

The anti-intellectual trope is a common cinematic theme that has always rubbed me the wrong way. Scientists are often painted as stubborn and closed-minded. Which is ironic, really. In reality, science is self-correcting, always incorporating new evidence as it comes to light, whereas religion is rigid and inflexible. I suppose, though, that Hollywood is only reflecting the culture. I guess I just don't quite understand how society decided that simply believing should be considered a virtue, but thinking critically about extraordinary claims is arrogant and dismissive? Surely, dispassionately weighing all the evidence before jumping to conclusions will produce more reasonable outcomes than blind acceptance of dogma. Okay, this is getting way too philosophical. Back to the movie...

Since the characters are essentially divided between believers and doubters, the cast often slips into heavy caricatures, either the kind-hearted supporter or the obstinate foe. Nonetheless, the film garnered four acting nominations, but only Jennifer Jones took home an Oscar for what amounts to a relatively simple portrayal of a softly-spoken and innocent girl. To my mind, though, Vincent Price (pictured) as the Imperial Prosecutor and Lee J. Cobb as the local doctor gave the most captivating and natural performances despite the lack of recognition from the Academy.

1 comment:

  1. "For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible." When I first saw The Song of Bernadette, this over-simplified statement was easily accepted. I was then steeped in Catholic tradition - parochial school and serving mass as an alter boy. In the many years since then I've become at the very least a skeptic. I've tried to follow the moral and ethical principles of the church, even if some of its own ordained have often disgracefully failed.

    Despite my disappointments, the movie has always uplifted me. There's something about the possibility of miracles that is fascinating. I agree with you that the early performances of Vincent Price and Lee J. Cobb were the standouts. I also liked the gruff Charles Bickford. Interestingly, they went with one of the most sultry of the actresses of the 1940s, Linda Darnell, as the Virgin Mary. I think that was at the insistence of Daryl Zanuck.

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