The Song of Judge Gordon Sullivan is played on the theremin.
Here is greatness…wonder…and majesty…no human words can describe!
We are encouraged to think that artists are independent souls, following the will of their muses as they create their art. Even Hollywood, that bastion of studio and producer power, likes to let us think that it's a combination of individual genius and moneymaking power the produces the films we all love. There are, however, other forces at work—sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle. In 1943, Hollywood obviously wanted to make money, but supporting the war effort was also on many peoples' minds. That meant lots of patriotic war movies or films about national pride. However, it also meant films that attempted to restore viewers' faith were in some demand. The Song of Bernadette was a successful novel in 1941, so by 1943 Hollywood could adapt it with confidence. Here was a popular success and a narrative about simple, enduring faith. It plays a bit weak sixty years later, but fans will appreciate the excellent The Song of Bernadette (Blu-ray) release.
Bernadette is a quiet young woman from Lourdes in France. One day she is visited by a woman in a trash dump. Convinced she is the Virgin Mary, Bernadette tells others of her encounter. Though she is not believed, she continues to return to the cave of her first encounter, digging a spring. The Catholic authorities condemn her, but her humble convictions eventually win them over as the spring begins to demonstrate miraculous healing properties.
Lourdes is perhaps a more well-known name today than (Saint) Bernadette, but the basic story of faith in the face of disbelief should be familiar to most viewers. What is not familiar to most of us is a film that doesn't immediately take one side or the other. The obvious conclusions are either that Bernadette was mentally ill (and the "miracles" of the spring wishful thinking) or that in fact something Divine intervened. Song of Bernadette doesn't make any of these obvious moves. Of course, Bernadette is convinced of the divinity of her encounters, but the film doesn't immediately take her side. Instead, we witness the initial disbelief by representatives of the Catholic Church. Many films might have stopped there, but that would have produced a film of interest only to those of the faith. Song of Bernadette wisely gives viewers Vital Dutuor, a secular prosecutor charged with determining if Bernadette is sane. He gets to ask the appropriate questions, and Vincent Price brings a quiet power to his rational position.
The film is also aided by veteran director Henry King's assured filmmaking. The black-and-white cinematography is luminous in the best possible sense, with plenty of Dryer-influenced closeups. The look of the film is aided by this excellent Blu-ray presentation. The source print is itself a little beat-up, with some warping and scratching early on. However, the 1.33:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer itself is spot-on. Black levels are consistent and deep, with contrast well-maintained throughout. Detail is also strong, with plenty of good-looking grain and facial details in evidence. The DTS-HD 1.0 mono track is similarly excellent. Dialogue sounds crisp, while the score sounds fuller than I expected.
The main extras for this disc have been ported over from the Fox Studio Classics version of the DVD. They start with a commentary featuring a trio of film historians Jon Burlingame, Edward Z. Epstein and Donald Spoto. The trio all have different specialties, so they address everything from the film's theological underpinnings to the history of its star, Jennifer Jones. Between them they dish out quite a lot of info on the film. A restoration demonstration and the film's trailer are also on offer. Finally, Alfred Newman's score is presented in an isolated DTS-HD 2.0 soundtrack.
Though apparently the film was a comfort to the afflicted in 1943, earning four awards at next year's Oscars, today's viewers might find the flick a bit hard to swallow. It's a fairly simple film in the vein of Bernadette's own faith, and that kind of simplicity can come off as silly today. Though the critique of the Catholic hierarchy might win a few points in the wake of various scandals, the faith aspects might not translate well. Also, fans might be disappointed that the short documentary on the life of Jennifer Jones included on the previous DVD release hasn't been ported here.
The Song of Bernadette is an interesting piece of film history, one of the few interesting films about faith. It's a well-made, well-acted example of what Hollywood could accomplish during war time. The Blu-ray of does a fine job presenting a seventy-year-old flick, and fans will want to upgrade from their previous DVD release.
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