I’m torn between two perspectives on this Henry King film. On the one hand, it’s visually beautiful – gorgeously lit by Arthur C. Miller from beginning to end – with an unhurried, ponderous pace matching the tone to its subject. The performances, especially Jennifer Jones’, are also calibrated to the slow, pensive mood. This all adds up to a wonderfully cohesive film that presents its legend with a measured reverence. On the other hand, it’s a heavy-handed indictment of the skeptic, personified in the character of Vincent Price, who notes that every time religious fanaticism takes hold, humanity takes a step backward.
I can’t help but identify with his perspective, which speaks directly to me living in the 21st century in a nation and a world polarized and upended by religious fundamentalism. Poor Price ends up predictably punished by cancer and loneliness, desperately unhappy and hopelessly empty at life’s end. He stands in direct contrast to Bernadette, who, also dying of cancer (the glorification of suffering is one of my least favorite things about traditional Catholicism), remains shakeless in her faith and her resolve, and dies not alone, but with “The Lady” (Mother Mary) standing before her, the ultimate reward for a life of devotion and sacrifice.
I would love to see this film remade, junking the original script by George Seaton and replacing it with one using a more questioning eye, one that might give equal credence to the three possibilities set forth in the Church investigations of Bernadette’s vision: one, that she is a half-wit simpleton who invented the story for attention; two, that she is insane, and though her visions may be real to her, they are in fact delusional rather than miraculous; or three, that Bernadette was divinely chosen to bear witness to the apparition of the Virgin Mary.
I think director Alan Rudolph could hold a wonderfully languorous pace while keeping the interpretation of the vision open to believers and skeptics alike. And honestly, I think the inherent ambiguity might make for a fascinating script by Charlie Kaufman. So many directions to go with an old classic!
*Note: the extras include the full A&E Biography of Jennifer Jones, which is a nice complement to the film.