Monday, February 11, 2013
The Song of Bernadette is one of my favorite films. The bleak poverty, the depth of winter, the chilling remoteness of the Pyrenean village are captured magnificently, so that Lourdes appears as the most unlikely spot for miracles that would shake the world. There are few more majestic moments in cinema than when the dying baby is plunged into the newly dug spring at the grotto of Massabielle, to come forth with a hearty, healthy cry. (Such a miracle did happen at Lourdes. I always cry at that scene.) Jennifer Jones becomes St. Bernadette; she resembles her a great deal, other than the divergence in height. The tall Jennifer communicates quite masterfully the littleness of the petite Bernadette, as well as her purity and simplicity. Charles Bickford's portrayal of the crusty, skeptical Abbé Peyramale, who becomes Bernadette's indefatigable champion, inspired me to visit the Abbé's tomb in the crypt of the parish church of Lourdes. The Abbé died two years before Bernadette, and so was not at her deathbed as shown in the movie.
The film was based upon the novel by Franz Werfel, one of the greatest Catholic novels written by a non-Catholic. When Werfel, who was Jewish, was escaping the Nazis, he and his wife (the notorious Alma Mahler) stopped in Lourdes on their way to Spain. Werfel found a great deal of spiritual consolation in Lourdes, and promised the long dead Bernadette that he would write down her story. The novel and film romanticize some aspects of Bernadette's life; a few historical liberties are taken. But the portrayal of Bernadette and her family, particularly her horrified parents, already overwhelmed by trials, is fairly accurate, as is the recounting of the amazing events at the grotto.
Remarkably, both the book and film emphasize that it was not the apparitions that made Bernadette into a saint. Rather, it was how she accepted the trials sent by God, from the humiliations in the convent to the debilitating and agonizing health problems that killed her. In the final scene, the faith of a dying nun illuminates a darkening world. I rejoice that her moment of light is artistically captured on film for posterity.