An old take on the faith vs. science tension sounds remarkably contemporary as this award-winner comes to UK Blu-ray for the first time.
Distributor: Eureka Classics
Duration: 135 minutes + special features on limited edition
There is a curious mix of fact and fiction in this story of a 14-year-old French girl, Bernadette Soubirous (Jennifer Jones) from a poor family, who claims to see visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto by the local dump, while out with her sister and a friend. Although a nun, who is on her back at different stages of her life, seems to be a dramatic tool, the local priest Abbé Dominique Peyramale (Charles Bickford) was involved in her story (although in fact, he died earlier than shown here).
And, while the screenplay is based on a best-selling novel by Franz Werfel, when I say that the story is set in the town of Lourdes, history clearly comes into play.
Politics enters the story by means of the local mayor, who wants a railway station to be built in the town, and – ironically – is worried that bad publicity from Bernadette’s story will affect his chances badly.
Hollywood seems unusually thoughtful regarding faith in this black-and-white Oscar-winning movie, as it explores faith versus scepticism – and the manner of this debate feels remarkably contemporary.
Bernadette’s main dramatic foil is the Imperial Prosecutor, Vital Dutour (Vincent Price), who stands as the representative of facts over faith.
When the mayor complains that this “stupid girl” has caused such trouble, Dutour responds, “Only because there are millions of others just as stupid as she is... What do you expect from a peasantry fed on religious dogma and superstitious nonsense? I firmly believe that this girl and what she stands for is a menace to civilisation. Every time religious fanaticism moves forward, mankind steps backwards.”
Also feeling up-to-date is the way that the Church’s stance over Bernadette’s claims seems to be primarily not to lose face, as it feels the breadth of that space between the two options in front of it – either proclaiming miracles or denouncing a fraudster.
Hollywood’s even-handedness becomes clear when watching the theatrical trailer, which boasts that the 1943 film celebrates the centenary of these visions. The movie is bookended with the quote, 'For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not, no explanation is possible'.
Typically, in these situations, there is plenty of doubt cast over the girl’s visions, but she holds to what she saw, despite the opposition from those around.
As the news spreads – despite Soubirous asking her sister and friend not to tell anyone – there are plenty of onlookers every time she visits the dump. While they cannot see anything themselves, they can see the effect on the girl. When she believes she is told to drink from the spring, and there is no spring there, she has the nous and faith to dig in the sand and water bubbles up.
When the spring is found to have healing properties, the whole dynamic changes scale, as people from a distance come to be made well, the town is put on the map, and even the emperor’s family get involved in an answered prayer.
Generally, the film works well, but it struggles to know how French it should be. Several times actors greet each other with ‘Bonjour’, only to continue in English, while the policeman sounds like the infamous comedy cop with the dodgy accent in ‘Allo ‘Allo.
The trailer is the only movie extra I was able to review, although the limited edition slip-cased version comes with audio commentaries from three biographers and historians, as well as a collector’s booklet with rare archival images and new notes, which largely just re-tell the story.
While the movie feels its age, it avoids the sentimentality often given to faith movies, and is mature enough to carry the debate in a realistic way and the story carries the viewer for more than two hours without the pace dragging.