Hollywood biopic of French peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous is sort of miracle in itself, as it skillfully repackages several apparently disjointed ingredients into big production movie - it was based on a successful novel written by author Franz Werfel who himself was a non-Catholic, presented and served for mainly non-Catholic US audiences, introduced the completely unknown actress in the main role and even showed Virgin Mary on the screen (played by at the time pregnant Linda Darnell). Despite all of this, it turned into a huge success and won no less than four Academy Awards, which just goes to show how much audiences responded to its appeal.
Director Henry King deals with this religious story with surprisingly noncommittal, professional touch - he wraps everything in a highly effective, visually appealing and evocative package but leaves audiences to come to their own conclusions. It is not on the ordinary, downtrodden and poor people but the town's prominent citizens and bureaucracy who stand firmly against this phenomenon that makes Lourdes a practical joke on newspaper pages. Outraged, alarmed and embarrassed with this attention, they try everything in their power to stop this avalanche of visitors until it dawns on them that it might bring them a profit. Lots of excellent actors shine in supporting roles - Anne Revere (whom I recently admired in "Dragonwyck") is unforgettable as a mother torn with doubt, shame and love for her daughter, Vincent Price (in his pre-horror days) is a main antagonist and a symbol of educated class, provoked by the idea that Virgin Mary will appear to someone as low and poor as simple peasant girl and the best of all is Gladys Cooper as a stern nun possessed by envy why with all her sacrifices and piety she wasn't the chosen one. Cooper has such a intimidating presence that she eventually almost unbalances the movie where the main focus should be than unknown Jennifer Jones - I have a huge problem with her acting, even though is clear she carefully followed instructions (and won Academy Award for it) as it brings to mind every single illiterate peasant woman from my childhood days who tearfully kissed pictures of saints and confirmed to the rules of how Catholic woman should behave, always submissive, always meek. What was allegedly held in high regard back in 1943. made me squirm today - when Jones breathy exclaims "I'm thtupid" and "I haven't thuffered enough" I wanted to switch the whole thing off.
At the end it seems its not about Bernardette and her visions at all - its what the rest of the world wanted from it. Bernardette herself accepts to sacrifice herself for the prosperity of her family and shuns the possibility of normal, married life with William Eythe (toy boy from "A Royal Scandal" ) but there is a one short, powerful scene when she enters the cold walls that appear anything but safe haven and with tears in her eyes she finally understand what she got herself into. I watched it as a period piece created with excellent production values of the times but it was slightly difficult as my personal affections were far closer to characters of Price and Cooper than to utterly saintly Jones who, for all I know, might have been talking to aliens. Take me to your leader indeed.