Films are an important feature of popular culture but can they also be a vehicle for theological enquiry? Veritas thinks they can! Every month during the Year of Faith, we offer a Film of the Month,which we invite you to watch, reflect on and discuss. As an initiative for the Year of Faith, you might like to start a Year of Faith Film Club in your work, school or parish community, where these films can be discussed and shared. Film reviews are kindly provided by Fr John-Paul Sheridan PhD.
Film of the Month for February: Song of Bernadette
‘To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.’
- St Thomas Aquinas
The Jesuit, James Martin, describes an incident in his book, My Life with the Saints:
One Friday evening during my second year as a novice, I wandered into the TV room to see what video was being served up … ‘What’s on?’ I asked the othernovice as I walked into the TV room. ‘The Song of Bernadette,’said one, barely glancing up from the TV.‘What’s it about?’ I asked. Everyone looked up from hischair, aghast. ‘You’re kidding, right?’ said another novice. ‘Please tell me you’re kidding.’ I shook my head dumbly … ‘Sit down,’ the novice said. ‘You can’t saythat you’re Catholic and not have seen this movie.’
This quote says a great deal about this particular film. It became part of Catholic culture in the United States in the 1950s, and was probably responsible for spreading the message and story of Lourdes to a wider non-Catholic audience. It was shown everywhere and Catholics flocked to see it. It was a time when Hollywood seemed to look favourably on the Catholic Church and its story and traditions. The two Bing Crosby films, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St Mary’s(1945) came out around the same time, along with The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), I Confess (1953), and The Prisoner (1955).
The Song of Bernadette was released in 1943 and tells the story of St Bernadette Soubirous. In 1858, from February to July, she reported seeing the Blessed Virgin Mary at the grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes in France. The film was adapted from the novel by Franz Werfel, which was published in 1941 in New York. The novel is an historical novel, which blends fact with fiction. It is not an exact representation of the events in Lourdes in 1958, nor does it set out to be. A number of inconsistencies exist between the film and the historical events surrounding the apparitions at Lourdes:
- Bernadette’s real-life friend Antoine Nicolau is portrayed as being deeply in love with her, and vowing to remain unmarried when Bernadette enters the convent. No such relationship is documented as existing between them.
- The government authorities, in particular Imperial Prosecutor Vital Dutour (played by Vincent Price), are portrayed as being much more anti-religion than they actually were,and in fact Dutour was himself a devout Catholic who simply thought Bernadette was hallucinating. - The film ends with the death of Bernadette, and does not mention the exhumation of her body or her canonisation, as the novel does.
However, these changes in no way detract from the film and it is a beautiful story, exquisitely told and gorgeously dramatised. The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won four, including one for the lead actress Jennifer Jones. Jones also won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Bernadette and there was also a Golden Globe for the Best Director and Best Motion Picture: Drama.
For a film synopsis and questions for reflection, please click here.