The New Old Movie Review: ‘The Song of Bernadette’ (1943)

This 1943 classic offers a true gift: a look into the life of a great saint.

The theatrical release poster for the ‘The Song of Bernadette’ is seen against a backdrop of the Basilica of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.
The theatrical release poster for the ‘The Song of Bernadette’ is seen against a backdrop of the Basilica of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. (photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 and Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

In his Poetics, Aristotle observed that “Character in a play is that which reveals the moral purpose of the agents.” Somehow, this message has been largely lost in today’s Hollywood. In fact, one of the greatest problems with many modern films is that the heroes onscreen are terribly lacking in virtue. The cinematic heroes are often so conflicted and vicious that it’s impossible to root for them. Of course, it wasn’t always this way. In its finest moments, Hollywood produced films that illustrated inspirational characters of moral purpose. And it’s never been done better than 1943’s The Song of Bernadette.

Set in 1858 and onward, the movie tells the true story of St. Bernadette Soubirous. Bernadette is born into an impoverished family in a little town in France. She is sickly and asthmatic, and even though she is the oldest student in the class, she is the worst. She openly states, “I’m stupid, Sister. I have a poor head for study.” Had the students voted for the least likely to succeed, Bernadette would have won unanimously.

One afternoon, Bernadette goes to gather firewood, and sees a beautiful lady in a grotto praying the Rosary. She does not ask the lady her name, nor does the lady volunteer her identity. Days later, Bernadette sees the lady at the grotto again. This time, the lady asks Bernadette to come and see her for 15 days straight, but her mother forbids her to — afraid that Bernadette is becoming a laughingstock of the village. Eventually, her mother relents, and goes with her, along with dozens of others. Soon, nearly the entire town accompanies her. But no one can see the beautiful lady except Bernadette.

The legal authorities endeavor to stop people from going to the grotto, but to no avail: nothing will stop Bernadette from going to see the woman she identifies merely as “The Lady.”

One day, the lady asks Bernadette to wash in a nearby spring. Bernadette does not understand, for there is no spring — at least at first. But after most of the people leave in disbelief and embarrassment that they ever believed her story, water begins to gush forth. And miracles quickly begin occurring when the people use the water. A blind man is restored sight. A paralyzed baby, who is given no medical chance of survival, is completely healed.

Several days later, “The Lady” reveals her identity: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Thousands of Catholics start making pilgrimages from other regions. Nevertheless, skeptics abound, including Bernadette’s own confessor and a few local magistrates who continually harass Bernadette. Church officials repeatedly pepper her with questions, and remain unconvinced — even in the midst of miracles.

With all the mockery and insults, even under the threat of imprisonment, Bernadette never wavers. 

Years after the water first appeared in the spring, Bernadette’s confessor — now a firm believer in her apparition — advises her that she should enter the convent. The whole town gathers to see her off, and a young man who loves Bernadette says a quiet goodbye. The young man understands that once you have fallen in pure love with a saint, no one else will do. The man’s final words to Bernadette constitute one of the most romantic speeches in film history.

At the convent, Bernadette sees a familiar religious sister who is overcome by envy. The sister cannot accept that God would allow Bernadette — and not herself! — to be so uniquely honored with a vision of Mary. The nun interrogates Bernadette: “When then, should God choose you? Why not me?” Perhaps that is a question many people wondered, but dared not speak aloud.

St. John Damascene taught: envy is “sorrow for another’s good.” How destructive is envy? Father Vincent Miceli, author of The Roots of Violence, writes: “The curse of envy, more than any other sin, has the capacity to create a hell on earth.” He observes “envy is a real form of psychological violence because it shatters interpersonal love.”

But if sorrow for another’s good creates a hell on earth, then happiness for another’s good — we might call that “kindness” — grants a glimpse of Heaven. The sister’s movement from hatred and envy to repentance and kindness is incredibly powerful. It is also remarkably timely in our “selfie” world caught in the throes of envy.

Even though many readers are already familiar with St. Bernadette’s life and death, I make it a rule not to give away movie endings. What I can say is that I first saw this movie when I was about 14 years old, and it has fostered my affection for St. Bernadette ever since.

This series of movie reviews has been dedicated to helping parents find those movies that illustrate virtue. Though the film certainly highlights perseverance in prayer, faith, purity and humility, but so many other virtues are present. Writing of another French saint, Joan of Arc, Mark Twain observed her qualities and virtues:

She was truthful when lying was the common speech of men; she was honest when honesty was become a lost virtue;
she was a keeper of promises when the keeping of a promise was expected of no one; …
she was modest, and fine, and delicate when to be loud and coarse might be said to be universal;
she was full of pity when a merciless cruelty was the rule;
she was steadfast when stability was unknown, and honorable in an age which had forgotten what honor was;
she was a rock of convictions in a time when men believed in nothing and scoffed at all things;
she was unfailingly true to an age that was false to the core; …
she was spotlessly pure in mind and body when society in the highest places was foul in both...”

All this and more could be said of St. Bernadette. The screenwriter, director, and lead actress give us viewers a true gift: a look into her saintly life. The Song of Bernadette is a family favorite in the Clark house, and will likely become one in yours as well.