Monday, 9 November 2009

The Song Of Bernadette, Henry King, USA 1943

The main reason why I've been wanting to see this particular film for some time, is because it is based on Franz Werfel's novel of the same name.
My PhD topic revolves around German-Jewish (or rather: German-speaking) Jews who fled Nazi-Germany and Nazi Occupied territory between 1933 and 1945. Werfel, of course, was one of them. The curious fact that Werfel, being a Jew, wrote about so Catholic a topic as the visions of Bernadette, is due to the fact that he, along with his wife Alma (the widow of Gustav Mahler), were stranded nearby Lourdes in 1940, desperate to get out of Vichy France. While there, Werfel familiarised himself with the story of Bernadette Soubirous, and pledged to write about her if ever him and Alma should manage to flee France. The novel, which Werfel started once they were safely ensconced in Beverly Hills, became a huge hit in the US, was named Book Of the Month and subsequently made it into the New York Times Bestseller List, where it stayed for many weeks.

Franz Werfel (b. 1890, Prague - d. 1945, Beverly Hills)

Having not read Werfel's book, I can't say how faithful King's film is to the novel. However, for the better part of the film, the presence of Jennifer Jones - this being her first film - carries the film. Jones received an Academy Award for her portrayal, and I admit that prior to watching the film I assumed that hers was just another of several incidences where an Oscar was bestowed on an actress - or actor - in their first perfomance where charisma and a somewhat unique personality were mistaken for great acting. Audrey Hepburn would be another example.

However, Jones' innocence, her purity and naivete - in the best sense of the word - serve the film very well. In fact, it is precisely this quality which gives the film its edge as the viewer - as well as the town's people of Lourdes - are never quite sure if Bernadette is just an imposter, a fraud, or if her visions were actually genuine. Reason tells you it's all a load of bunk, while on the other hand, Bernadette's personality, her purity - as portrayed by Jones - are apt to convince you otherwise. This ambiguity, unfortunately, falls gradually apart about 100 minutes into the film, when each and every one of her doubters are unnecessarily - and unconvincingly - persuaded that her visions are indeed real and that far from an attention-grabbing waif, she is, in fact, a superior human being, and very much worthy of the saintly status she has since attained.

King - and George Seaton, the screenwriter - would have done the film a great service, had they kept that ambiguity going. As is, what may have become an interesting film that challenges viewer, believer and disbeliever alike, the story eventually descends into a syrupy, sugar-coated melodrama which actually, make the last 45 minutes quite painful to watch.

Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette (USA 1943)