The Song of Bernadette (1943)

Suggested by Brad Nelson • A peasant girl has a vision of “a beautiful lady” in the city dump. The townspeople all assume it is the Virgin Mary. The pompous government officials think she is nuts and do their best to suppress the girl and her followers. The Church wants nothing to do with the matter.
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4 Responses to The Song of Bernadette (1943)

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    This is a pretty hefty movie at 2 hours and 36 minutes. It does drag a bit. And it would have done better to provided some context (such as the many people claiming miracles only to have been shown to be frauds or mentally ill). And I would have spent more time in the convent.

    Be that as it may, it’s likely the content of the movie is best summed up by the titles at the beginning: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not, not explanation is possible.”

    We could discuss this movie from here until the end of time and not come up with much better than that. Charles Bickford as Father Peyramale echoes these words at the end of the film. Vincent Price is the token atheist. There is no firm believer at the start other than Bernadette.

    Those claiming to see visions of God (or Mary) are not automatically accepted. We see how skeptical Church officials were to such claims. It’s obvious that they’ve been burned many times before by some attention-seeker. Many supposed that this was the motivation of Bernadette including friends and family. And think how temping it was for a young girl with no future other than poverty and degradation to claim to be a special conduit of God.

    I would have loved it if this film would have started with a glimpse at a miracle story that had been debunked and then moved on to Bernadette. What made her story different? First, she stuck to it. Second, she showed no guile. Third, there appear to be bona fide miracles attached to the water of Lourdes. Finally (for the viewer), her most severe skeptic, Sister Marie Therese Vauzous, was won over when she realized that Bernadette had indeed greatly suffered, and in silence. This scene between the two is the highpoint of the movie.

    Charles Bickford has the interesting role of the parish priest who is at first highly skeptical of Bernadette and will not acknowledge her in any way. But he is slowly won over, although it was a good scene when the Father was trading theologically points with presumably the Virgin Mary over whether referring to her as “The Immaculate Conception” wasn’t grammatically wrong.

    Overall this is an interesting movie that parallels a real-life story. How deep does the story go? We must refer to that earlier quote from the film.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    The Catholic Church has a history of looking at claims of visions and miracles with proper caution — not the reflexive skepticism we see so often, but definitely not credulity. But then, as Father Brown, once explained why he wasn’t fooled by a crook who pretended to be a fellow priest: ‘You attacked reason. That’s always bad theology.”

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      One gets the idea from this movie that false claims of miraculous events were a regularity. Granted, in this particular area of concern, separating the false from the true is not so easy — probably harder still than sifting through the daily Fake News.

      Vincent Price is splendid, and barely understated (compared to our Dawkinsesque time), in his disdain for religion. In the end, what makes this incident extraordinary is the doctor who bore witness to seemingly miraculous healings. It’s easy enough to dismiss Bernadette as an obviously sincere girl who saw something, but perhaps produced from her own mind. Schizophrenia, if you will. But a baby who is paralyzed one moment — dipped in the water — and then is completely healthy the next is compelling evidence…if, of course, the doctor was being objective.

      Still, whatever the case may be, you have literally hundreds of millions of people who believe in God. And yet when something miraculous happens (assuming it did), there’s a knee-jerk suspicion that it just can’t be so. And, especially, the Virgin Mary would never appear in the city dump, for example. Bernadette, or another character, reminded this particular skeptic that Christ was born in a stable.

      Do centuries of fraud and the burning of supposed heretics leave such lasting heavy feelings? One person noted that had Bernadette lived a century earlier, she might have been burned as a witch. It’s this conflict between professing belief in God but then going ape-shit if someone claims a miracle. One can certainly understand the Church not wanting to get burned by false claims.

      Whether the threshold for the confirming real miracles is too high or too low, there does seem to be a process whereby the passions of the moment do not overwhelm. I would think there is also an element of marketing here. If enough people want to believe in a Saint, and it’s good business, per se, who is the Church not to confirm it?

      In reality, these are miracles or not miracles regardless of what our earthly bureaucracies say about it. Still, without bureaucracy we could not have civilization. God may indeed work in mysterious ways.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        A false vision need not be a hallucination. During the period of the Bell Witch hauntings, one local thought he may have seen the Bell Witch — only to get closer and realize it was an illusion created by a particular configuration of natural features. Of course, in that case the heavy liquor consumption of the locals would encourage seeing illusions.

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