In 1858, the small village of Lourdes in France, nobody had any inkling of what was to happen to place them on the map. Living there was the Soubirous family, whose father (Roman Bohnen) was lucky to get work where he could find it as times were tight; hoping to gain employment at the bakery, he was directed to a humiliating job at the hospital, carting off and burning the rags that had been used to treat the dying. Meanwhile his daughters attended school, where the Catholic faith was drummed into them, though Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) lagged behind her classmates thanks to time off for asthma. So why, of all people, was she chosen to see a vision?
If indeed she was chosen, for there are still those who believe now, as they did then, that Bernadette was the victim of a hallucination and those who benefit from a "miracle" at Lourdes, one of the top Catholic pilgrimage sites on the planet, were merely enjoying some form of placebo effect thanks to their religious belief. Certainly not everyone who attends the village, now very much an industry and a lucrative one at that, is blessed by having their physical burden lifted from them, but some do, and no matter how few they number it is significant for the believers and the faithful. You might have expected a Hollywood effort from the middle of the Second World War to agree.
Yet under the direction of Henry King, what was served up was far more nuanced than that, giving space for the sceptics and the mistrustful as well as it did the pious, leaving a film that would likely reinforce whatever beliefs you came to it with. That this picture was played on a loop at a dedicated Lourdes cinema may have you thinking it was leaning in to the religion rather more heavily did not necessarily negate that opinion, for as this lasted over two-and-a-half hours, it had plenty of space to examine all sorts of angles of what had been accepted as a miracle by the Church, though not after heated debate, and that too was reflected in the drama and discussions between the characters here.
Jones, making her apparent debut, was not only landed with an "introducing" credit and much fanfare, but secured the Best Actress Oscar gong for this (it was revealed around the same time that under her real name of Phyllis Isely she already had a career, most notably in a Dick Tracy serial). This was a matter of the Academy actually wanting to give Bernadette herself an award, not because they thought she was a great actress, but because they felt important enough to be handing out the plaudits in the same way the Pope might have sainted her. Jones, whose performance was in truth monotonous in its beatific expression, would go on to far more interesting work, but she could thank Bernadette for delivering her the opportunities to essay a collection of more conflicted personas; she's not bad here, exactly, but she might as well be one of those blessed Saint Christopher medals for all her animation.
Once Bernadette has seen the Virgin Mary at the village dump (!), not that she identifies this lady as such, all heaven breaks loose as the possibility this simple (but not simple-minded) girl has been contacted by the divine. While the faithful were well-acted, priest Charles Bickford especially, it was the sceptics given most to get their teeth into, with Vincent Price all stern compassion in the chief accuser's role, convinced to the conclusion that Lourdes is a circus capitalised on by the greedy to get one over on the gullible. Also very fine was Gladys Cooper as the nun who is stern and nothing but, a formidable performance as the sister who cannot understand why she, who has suffered all her life, is not given this vision when this silly girl does instead. The Church's ways were criticised, for Bernadette is forced to become a nun in the latter stages - all she has to do is say she made it up and she can return to a normal life. The image of the boy who loved her left behind after telling her he has decided to never marry is as close to a slam on the organisation as you'll get in this era. If the believers are left with illusions unshattered, there was food for thought in one of the biggest blockbusters of the forties. Music (much heavenly choirs) by Alfred Newman.
[Eureka have released this on Blu-ray, fully restored and looking luminous. Not loads of extras, but you do get the overture, the trailer, and a booklet.]