Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

There once was a time when Hollywood wasn’t afraid of religion, and it wasn’t that long ago. Starting at the beginning of the medium’s inception, and continuing on up to the 80s or so, the movies featured religion, and Christianity in particular, quite prominently as primary subject matter, and until the New Hollywood movement of the 70s, it was mostly in a haloed, highly complementary manner. From the great Biblical epics of D.W. Griffith, to biopics about clergymen as modern-day heroes like The Bells of St. Mary’s and Going My Way, tinseltown celebrated the faith, owing mostly to its reflection of American society during those conservative years, and its strict adherence to the Hays Code, the act of self-censorship which kept the film industry’s morals in check for most of the twentieth century.

By the 80s, religion was largely ignored by most filmmakers, and in the 1988 came the straw that broke the camel’s back. Director Martin Scorsese, who had always cast a questioning eye toward his Catholic upbringing, unleashed The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie that challenged the prescribed dogma of the life of Jesus by speculating about his humanity – specifically, his ability to e tempted by carnal lust in the form of Mary Magellan. It didn’t take long for protesters to picket movie lines, and the film’s underwhelming box office is most often seen as the causation of this controversy (despite the likelihood that the smash success of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ was due to the same controversy, although it did cast Christ in a far more stoically heroic light). From then on, religion was seen as box office poison, and when it was addressed, it was used merely as superficial spice (1995’s Priest) or quite disparagingly (2015’s Spotlight). The connection Hollywood/Church bond was severed, for good.

So it’s a bit of a time-machine trip to view 1943’s The Song of Bernadette, a film prefaced with the quote, “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, none is possible.” I count myself among the latter group, so right away I was skeptical, but as the film started I was amazed at how matter-of-fact, how understated (despite appropriately timed musical swells) it was, telling the simple story of a French girl who sees the Virgin Mary in a remote thicket, and how that vision stirs up the unwashed masses in hope, while stirring up controversy among the law and the church in anger. Bernadette doesn’t proselytize; it chronicles an spiritual event, and while it all the while comes down on the girl’s side, it doesn’t demonize the heavies either. It made me think about religion’s place in society, particularly that of a century ago, in another country, and that it is enough for me.

Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) is a young teenage girl in Lourdes, France in 1858, born into a peasant family, afflicted with asthma and often ridiculed for her frailty and naïveté. But then one day, wandering in the woods, she sees the glowing image of a beautiful lady, and she is so enraptured she visits the site every day. Energized, her, and he family’s, fortune changes and word spreads of this “miracle.” The local prosecutor, Vital (Vincent Price), and mayor, isn’t so fond – especially when it stymies plans to run a profit-inducing railroad through town. They procure the council of a doctor to find out if she is ill, a psychiatrist to determine her mental health, and search the lawbooks to look for a way she is breaking the law. Every effort proves fruitless, but they are befuddled by her apparent sincerity – and ability to deflect all their interrogations with sound reasoning and logic.

When they finally seem able to lock her u in an institution, the Church steps in – Father Peyramale, initially a skeptic, sets up an appointment by the high clergy to determine the authenticity of this girl’s sighting of the “Immaculate Conception,” and her ostensible materialization of a spring, of which the water evidentially has curative powers beyond scientific explanation. They deem her miracles real, Peyramale encourages Bernadette to devote her life to God. She enters the convent, where fellow some novitiates are impose their rigidity on her – for at least one, the result of guilt over accusing the girl of not having suffered, when it is learned she is suffering from a leg tumor causing unspeakable pain. As the Church, and indeed the entire country, prepares for Bernadette’s death, many previous doubters appear now to be believers, including Vital, now terminally ill with cancer of the larynx. Through an interior monologue, we discover how solitary and self-loathing he is – and we hear his plea to Bernadette for prayer… and redemption.

At roughly 2 hours and 40 minutes, The Song of Bernadette is a long film, particularly for such a narrow plotline. But its swift, spare direction by Henry King, and smart writing by prolific screenwriter George Seaton (Miracle on 34th Street, Airport) keeps it rolling along, with only minor dragging at around the ¾ mark. And there’s a propelling interest to keep one engaged, namely, what exactly is going to happen to poor Bernadette, who gets dragged through the mud over and over again simply for being honest in what she sees in the grotto. Not knowing the story of the “Miracle at Lourdes,” I had no clue, though the film clearly keeps you firmly on her side, since we actually see the blessed virgin just as clearly as she. (Interestingly, if this movie were remade, I’d suspect we’d be kept oblivious, forced to speculate whether she is a miracle viewer or just simply delusional.)

And we’re also engaged for another reason, and that lies in Bernadette’s character, the epitome of sincerity, of nobility… of purity. So much so, in fact, that the one-noteness of her character is often maddening. Why does she get led around so? Why won’t she protest more when fatherly forces coax her into joining the seminary, for example, or threaten her with imprisonment for her resolute belief in the miraculous? I ultimately determined that in many ways, Bernadette is more of a static character than we’d like – more of a reflection of the way others see her, and treat her (and they do, mostly, treat her badly). In actuality, the true dynamic character is Prosecutor Vital, whose eleventh-hour appeal to Bernadette for clemency is heartbreaking – the final appeal of a man hitherto strict and pedantic, but now realizing, perhaps too late, the folly of his myopic introversion. Perhaps I identified most with Vital, and though I don’t and likely won’t believe in miracles, I can understand the movie’s theme of being open-minded to the unexplainable.

And Bernadette reminds us that often, particularly in times of despair, the unexplainable is all we’ve got.

Another notch in Fox’s belt – a supremely well-conceived, artfully executed work of theological entertainment. Enjoy them while they still made them.

                           Rating: ***

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