Released in 1943, The Song of Bernadette is based on the true story of Bernadette Soubirous, a sickly young lady who (in 1858) claims to experience visions of a beautiful woman in Lourdes, France. The woman in the visions is assumed to be the Virgin Mary. Hoards of people begin joining Bernadette as she visits the grotto where the vision appears. She has requested Bernadette’s presence for 15 consecutive days. Some of the many who accompany her begin to experience recovery from various maladies, unexplainable by that era’s standards of medical science.
Your mileage will likely vary depending on whether or not you consider yourself a believer in the Christian faith. The filmmakers—chief among them director Henry King, producer William Perlberg, and screenwriter George Seaton—seem to take a pro-miracle, pro-Bernadette stance. Her communication with this vision is presented very much at face value, free of irony or cynicism. But agnostics and atheists fear not. The Song of Bernadette is no mere piece of one-sided Christian propaganda, as numerous characters doubt and debate the legitimacy of Bernadette’s alleged visions. These doubters are not limited to the bureaucrats of Lourdes. Even the faith of many religious personnel wavers as they question whether this ignorant peasant girl has truly been chosen for divine intervention.
Twilight Time has recently issued The Song of Bernadette as a limited edition Blu-ray (only 3,000 copies available). And again, regardless of one’s own personal beliefs, it’s quite an important and worthwhile film from a historical perspective. The film was nominated for an impressive 12 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (it lost both, quite understandably, to Casablanca). It received four Oscars, including Jennifer Jones for her portrayal of the title character. Jones would go on to be nominated for four additional Oscars throughout her career, which effectively ended for all practical purposes with the death of her second husband, legendary film producer David O. Selznick (she appeared in very few films thereafter). Born Phylis Isley, she landed the lead in Bernadette after only a couple minor roles.
Despite a potentially overbearing running time of 156 minutes given the relatively simple narrative, Bernadette moves along at a brisk pace. As good fortune strikes not only Bernadette’s dirt poor family but also many others in Lourdes, city officials become concerned with the growing hysteria surrounding pilgrimages to the grotto where Bernadette supposedly communicates with the vision. A particularly strong, understated performance is turned in by Vincent Price as the Imperial Prosecutor Vital Dutour. Also standing out is J. Lee Cobb as skeptic and man of science Dr. Dozous, unable to explain away the mysterious circumstances of Bernadette’s behavior and the apparently connected healings.
It’s only fair to point out the visual problems inherent in the source materials used for this transfer. As evidenced by the restoration demo, I don’t doubt that Twilight Time was provided with the best elements known to exist. But there are specs and scratches throughout, occasionally enough to be distracting. Luckily clarity and detail are surprisingly strong and there is a pleasing layer of fine, natural film grain. Contrast is occasionally a little too low, presenting a washed out image at times.
The lossless 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono track is in surprisingly great shape, considering the problems with the visuals. As with many soundtracks of its vintage, there’s nothing fancy about it. It’s just a solid, clean presentation of dialogue, effects, and Alfred Newman’s celebrated, Oscar-winning score.
The main supplement to Bernadette is a highly information commentary track featuring film historians Donald Spoto (also a religious scholar), John Burlingame (who analyzes Newman’s score), and Edward Z. Epstein (a Jennifer Jones expert). Anyone seeking greater context for this film would do well to listen to this track. As is customary for Twilight Time releases, the score is presented as an isolated, 2.0 DTS-HD track. There’s a short restoration demo and the film’s theatrical trailer. Not to be overlooked is Julie Kirgo’s thoughtful essay in the Blu-ray booklet.
The limited edition Blu-ray of The Song of Bernadette can be ordered through Twilight Time’s exclusive distributor, Screen Archives, while supplies last.