French director Jean Delannoy’s 1988 film Bernadette brought an unembellished, matter-of-fact historical style to the well-known story of St. Bernadette Soubirous’ visions of the Blessed Virgin at the grotto of Lourdes. The Passion of Bernadette, Delannoy’s sequel, again starring Sydney Penny (“All My Children”) as the visionary of Lourdes, takes a similar approach to the rest of Bernadette’s life in the convent at Nevers, where she seeks sanctuary from her own celebrity.
For a moment upon her arrival it looks as if even in the convent Bernadette will not be able to escape the burden of renown. To her dismay, almost the first thing the mother superior tells her is that the next day she must address the whole convent with the story of her visions. But this is for her own good: Only by acknowledging the elephant in the room will it be possible to lay the subject to rest. “Once the story is told, that will be the end of it,” declares the mother general.
And, remarkably, it is, more or less. There are some reminders of Bernadette’s fame, especially celebrity visits from the pope’s confessor, the bishop of Orleans, and others. One of the funniest scenes involves a visit from French loyalist Gougenot des Mousseaux, who comes to see Bernadette during the Franco-Prussian war in the hope that, like a latter-day Joan of Arc, she may have revelations with military and political implications for France. Toward the end there is a poignant meeting with her brother, in which we learn that Bernadette will not write home because her letters are reverenced as relics, and even her siblings sell religious trinkets at her old grotto. “It’s not easy having a sister like you,” her brother confesses.
On the whole, though, the story of Bernadette’s “passion” is not dominated by her previous life as a visionary. The film is instead a “story of a soul,” a portrait of a young woman becoming a saint.
Saint though she is and will be, Bernadette is not a model nun. Seeking further levels of withdrawal even in the convent, she wears her cowl too far forward on her head, like blinders on a horse, a personal “chapel” for her own soul. (Could she have had some form of high-functioning autism?) On another occasion, she must be corrected for being off at the grotto praying during the hour of recreation. This may seem a small fault, but life is more than prayer, even the life of a contemplative nun, and Bernadette must learn that there is a time for everything, including play.
Cheerful, humorous, and longsuffering, Bernadette displays harshness only once, with another postulant who balks at the sight of an ugly bedsore in a blind older nun whom Bernadette tends at the infirmary. “Coward!” Bernadette rebukes her. “You’ll never be a Sister of Mercy!” But there is mercy even for the coward, for Bernadette knows that she herself needs mercy. “It’s easy to canonize others,” she broods to the bishop of Orleans. “Then you don’t have to pray for them.”
Given the inherently less dramatic structure, The Passion of Bernadette doesn’t “tell a story” the way the original film does, but the portrait of Bernadette’s unassuming heroic sanctity and occasional tart rejoinders remains moving and worthwhile.
Both Bernadette and The Passion of Bernadette are available on DVD from Ignatius Press. The original Bernadette was shot in dual French and English versions; The Passion of Bernadette was shot only in French. The Passion DVD defaults to a dubbed English soundtrack, but you can watch the film in French with English subtitles by selecting “Versions” (the usual term would be “Languages”) in the menu.
Eschewing both the slickness and Hollywood sentiment of The Song of Bernadette and the speculative psychology of Alain Cavalier’s contemporary Thérèse, Delannoy’s unembellished, straightforward account seeks only to tell Bernadette’s story in a clear and compelling way.
Based on the historical novel by Jewish author Franz Werfel, the beloved classic The Song of Bernadette stands head and shoulders over most religiously themed fare from Hollywood’s golden age.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.