In real life, I reject supernaturalism.
As such, I put biblical literalism in the same bullshit bucket as faith healing, astrology, ghosts and super-powered crystals.
As a filmgoer, though, I’m usually comfortable with the supernatural on screen … but I’ll admit a bias when those powers are ascribed to a very specific, mainstream god.
That’s actually not much of a concern these days, though. It’s rare anymore to find a straight-faced American film where a character not only believes in a traditional god but also has that faith reinforced by miracles and / or a heavenly visitor. And films like that — the on-the-nose likes of God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real — are easy to dodge without feeling like I’ve missed anything.
But once upon a time, American mainstream films unapologetically acknowledged a traditional, interventionist Judeo-Christian deity. I’m not just talking about biblical spectacles like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, but also in quieter films of faith. And they were rewarded at the box office and by those tossing out awards.
Case in point: The Song of Bernadette, the third-highest-grossing film of 1943, which earned more coin than Casablanca and picked up Oscars for Best Actress, Score, Cinematography and Art Direction along the way.
It’s a film I might have continued to dodge if it wasn’t for Leonard Cohen, Jennifer Warnes and Bill Elliott.
That trio wrote “Song of Bernadette” (the song, not the movie), and Warnes recorded it on her album Famous Blue Raincoat. Beautiful and moving, it’s a song that slides back into my consciousness whenever I meet people of grace and empathy or when I find myself “torn by what we’ve done and can’t undo.” Like other Cohen songs, it takes religious ideas and imagery and expands them into the personal.
With the song embedded so deeply in me (it even partly inspired a play I’ve written), I thought it time to see the movie of the same title.
Both the film and the song are anchored in the story of French peasant Bernadette Soubirous, a young woman who, in 1858, claimed to have a vision of a “young lady” who ID’d herself as the “immaculate conception” and requested a chapel be built in a nearby grotto. The story led to Lourdes becoming a major attraction, its waters given credit for healings and Bernadette canonized as a saint.
None of that makes sense in the rational world, of course. I don’t believe for a second that the Virgin Mary trekked to earth to glow in front of this girl, instructed her where to dig and turned a puddle into a miracle drug.
Miracle of miracles, though, I really like the film.
Jennifer Jones is terrific in the title role, sincere but never too bright and awkward but not pitiable. Her confrontations with those of power are both tense and charming. The celebrated score and cinematography are rich. Director Henry King’s pacing is neither rushed nor languorous. And the script by South Bend native George Seaton, based on Franz Werfel’s bestselling novel, understands that the machinations of the politicians and the church are worthy of as much screen time as Bernadette’s trips to the grotto. (Seaton later went on to write and direct another supernatural, albeit lighter, classic with Miracle on 34th Street.)
Most surprising was how invested I was in the supporting characters. No, I don’t mean uncredited Linda Darnell’s portrayal of the “lady”; for a while there, I thought the film would leave the vision unseen but, nope, there she is in all her robed and glowing glory. No, I mean about the folks, both religious and secular, trying to figure out if this Bernadette kid’s story is a sham, a hallucination or the real deal. I’m talking about the full-blooded work of Charles Bickford as the local priest, Gladys Cooper as the abusive Sister Vauzou, Lee J. Cobb as a doctor called to the case and especially Vincent Price as the Imperial Prosecutor. Price, in his pre-Poe period of primarily historical dramas, gives rich inner life to what could be cardboard opposition. The guy can pull focus just by wiping his nose. His performance throughout makes his final scene even stronger than our last sight of the title character.
So, ultimately, did I buy into Bernadette’s truth? Intellectually, no. But I also don’t intellectually buy that Superman can fly or that Charlton Heston wouldn’t be tipped off to where he is when he hears apes speaking English. If a movie is true to itself — as both Bernadette and The Song of Bernadette are — I can happily suspend disbelief.