A 1940s French film is one of the most Catholic horror movies ever made

Jennifer Jones and Vincent Price in ‘The Song of Bernadette' (photo: alamy.com)Jennifer Jones and Vincent Price in ‘The Song of Bernadette' (photo: alamy.com)

The best Catholic horror film of 2018 was made in 1943.

At first glance, “The Song of Bernadette” seems as wholesome—and as outdated—as the clink of the morning milk delivery. It’s filmed in black and white, its score is plangent and heavy on the strings, and Jennifer Jones plays the saint at its center with a sweetness and softness that played big to wartime audiences but which, to me, is a little too spun-sugar. It was a huge hit at the box office and won four Oscars, which might make it a classic or might just make it a time capsule. The final frame even includes an advertisement: Buy war bonds!

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But this fictionalized story of Bernadette Soubirous, a French peasant girl who claims she sees a mysterious “Lady” in a secluded part of the city dump, follows a classic horror-film structure in order to make a theological point that could not be more urgent and contemporary.

"The Song of Bernadette" follows a classic horror-film structure in order to make a theological point.

There are some surface parallels: The scenes where local officials scheme to prevent worshipers from believing Bernadette are basically from “Jaws” if the Fourth of July weekend was a new railroad station and the great white shark was our Blessed Mother. The threat to have Bernadette examined by a psychiatrist calls up memories of Fairuza Balk in “Return to Oz.” But the real parallel between this hagiography and a horror film lies in the movie’s structure.

Horror movies, especially supernatural ones, often turn on questions of authority. Whose account of reality can be trusted? Horror films often spend a long time on the investigative process, eliminating normal explanations until the abnormal is all that is left. The point of these investigations is not to answer the question of whatdunnit. Nobody goes into “The Exorcist” wondering if maybe little Regan is just having a bad reaction to her parents’ divorce. The point is to show the failure of accepted, modern authorities—science, medicine, government, reason itself. The people who know the truth are the ones least likely to be believed. From the island singer in “I Walked with a Zombie” to the project kids in “Candyman”; from the disbelieved teenagers in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to the disbelieved teenager in “The Song of Bernadette”authority, in horror, lies with those to whom powerful men do not listen.

Horror movies, especially supernatural ones, often turn on questions of authority.

“The Song of Bernadette” is an extended confrontation between a peasant girl and every single power of this world. No, wait—two peasant girls. There is an achingly tender scene early on when Bernadette’s mother (Anne Revere) is comforting her by the fire, telling her daughter that soon she will be married and have her own babies. This harrowed woman says in soft, heartbreaking tones, “Life goes by so fast.” Bernadette is so young, too young for what’s being asked of her. When she sees the Virgin Mary in a grotto in the city waste ground, Our Lady is so young—almost as young as when the angel came.

The mayor and other civil authorities (including one played with sinister ennui by the great Vincent Price) meet in the Cafe du Progres to plot against the peasant girls. Police officers flail helplessly as crowds of women march to the grotto to kneel. The priest and his superiors stand aloof from Bernadette. Her fiercest opponent is a woman, of course—like her staunchest supporters—a nun played with febrile ferocity by Gladys Cooper. The film notes fairly that there have been impostors before, who claimed to see visions in order to fleece the gullible. And there have been hallucinations, fantasies, wishful thinking. Still, the constant interrogations can’t help but resonate in the age of #MeToo—if this is how the world treats girls who report miracles, how does it treat girls who report rape?

The film can’t help but resonate in the age of #MeToo—if this is how the world treats girls who report miracles, how does it treat girls who report rape?

The clergy refuse to help Bernadette, or even hear her, until the Virgin Mary forces their hand. They are part of the world that has taught her that she is stupid. The bureaucracy of miracles interrogates her again and again, all the way to the end of her life. The film’s frequent comedy erupts when Bernadette’s humility exposes others’ wickedness and folly. But it is a hard comedy whose punchline is the absurdity of shameless power and shamed truth.

Bernadette’s opponents harp on the fact that the “Lady” appeared in “a place of filth,” “a cesspool.” They claim this is unfitting for the Virgin (who bore Christ in a stable). The hygienic ones are scandalized by where God shows his greatest favor, whom he most insistently loves.

Bernadette experiences the fickleness of the crowd, as her own Palm Sunday triumph quickly becomes a humiliating Way of the Cross. The theology in “The Song of Bernadette” is subtle; it satirizes Catholic worship of suffering, a kind of Pelagianism of pain, and yet, Bernadette’s acceptance of suffering is key to her credibility and her holiness.

Many films show the beauty of humility. Many show the evil of knuckling under injustice. Few show both the beauty of humility in the face of injustice and the way this humility can be marbled with self-hatred. Bernadette’s genuine humility leads her to believe those who tell her she is stupid and lazy. Many of us have felt that vertiginous slip from “Lord, I am not worthy” to “Therefore, you will not come to me.” This is Bernadette’s final temptation. All her former adversaries are vanquished, but like Michael Myers, they rise up from behind the couch, as voices in her head.

At the climax of many horror classics, the “final girl” confronts the monster—alone, because no one in power will believe in the threat—and defeats him through her bravery and resourcefulness. Bernadette, at the close of her earthly life, confronts monsters within herself and falters. The bravery she has shown throughout this film is not enough: She needs rescue. Unlike the “final girl,” she can’t triumph alone; unlike the “final girl,” she doesn’t have to.

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J Cosgrove
9 months 1 week ago

I suggest all rent or buy the Song of Bernadette. It is a very positive and moving movie despite the description here.

James Haraldson
9 months 1 week ago

This review is a silly and shallow commentary, to be expected from a gathering place for Catholics who hate to admit the truths of Catholicism and need to constantly invent ways to subvert its truths to accommodate liberal sentimentality. Bernadette the feminist? How absurd. Comparing her to the feminist degenerates who lie about rape to score cynical political points for the pro-abortion crusade, and therefore further victimize real victims of rape, is a silly cheap shot.
The message of Lourdes faithfully transmitted in this story, originated by a Jewish author, and despite his literary liberties, eludes this author. Truth is an affront to the original sin of pride, and every sinner hates truth to one degree or another, including feminist sympathizers who cannot conceive of heaven sending the pre-twentieth century world the message that God’s plan for each individual life begins at their conception and is therefore sacred from that moment. How ironic that this commentary that fails to appreciate this should appear on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. This film is not horror. This film is luminescence.

Don Killgallon
9 months 1 week ago

James, you're on target. For me, having seen this movie many times, it is profoundly moving on a human level, and deeply inspiring on a spiritual level. One of the best movies I've ever seen. If only modern sensibilities would rekindle and make this kind of movie, our world would begin a much needed cleansing from the pornucopia that dirties it.

Jim Allgaier
9 months 1 week ago

The beauty and simplicity of the movie as connected to the Virgin Mary as "Immaculate Conception" couldn't be more direct....we must have faith before we can understand....that's What Bernadette had. What we all need...I too suggest seeing the movie for yourself....a Classic.

Jim MacGregor
9 months 1 week ago

Yawn! By the way ... whatever happened to the letter that the lady gave to Bernadette to give to the pope to be opened in 1960? That piece of fiction seems to have died with interest in this movie.

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9 months 1 week ago

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9 months 1 week ago

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Mary Ann Lund
9 months 1 week ago

A terrific piece of writing. Thank you, Eve ... and don't all the male commenters finding it 'silly' etc. underscore your original point about the lone woman whom antagonistic men cannot bear to 'authorise'? My favourite sentence: 'Few show both the beauty of humility in the face of injustice and the way this humility can be marbled with self-hatred.' Wise writing indeed. I shall watch the film with new eyes.

James Haraldson
9 months 1 week ago

How is a "lone woman" enduring "antagonistic men" who fail to "authorize" her if they disagree with her? Have the idiocies and evil premises of feminism now descended to the point where defending a Catholic saint against the slander that would characterize her as an icon of feminism need to be reduced to a secular caricature of created from a trivializing hatred for men in a, however pretentious, Catholic publication? Contemporary feminists would have been among the first to spit upon Bernadette if you know anything about her life and times.

Sarah Roe
9 months 1 week ago

A lot of men commenting feel really threatened by an alternate perspective on a Hollywood movie. The article makes it clear that The Song of Bernadette is a fictionalized portrayal. Within this fiction, a main drama of Bernadette’s story is the disbelief she encounters from male authority figures who refuse to believe her reports of heavenly apparition. How is it in any way inaccurate or unfair to point this out?

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9 months 1 week ago

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Kane Henry
9 months 1 week ago

I agree with your comment. Really nice horror movie and its character to love acting, emotion and all things made by a team.
Regards, apollo tv

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9 months 1 week ago

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Bonnie Weissman
9 months ago

It’s been a while since I saw this film, but as I remember it, the priest asked Bernadette to ask the lady who she was. Bernadette, as always, obeyed and asked her. When she told the priest (played by Vincent Price) that the lady called herself “the Immaculate Conception,” his resistance began to crumble. The doctrine of Mary in this role had just been ruled on by the Vatican. He knew there was likely no way a peasant girl who struggled at school would know this term. The shocked expression on the actor’s face and the dramatic music show it. I do agree with the author’s basic premise though that females in cases like these (or in some cases of sexual assault or harassment) are deemed less credible than males.

Bonnie Weissman
9 months ago

It’s been a while since I saw this film, but as I remember it, the priest asked Bernadette to ask the lady who she was. Bernadette, as always, obeyed and asked her. When she told the priest (played by Vincent Price) that the lady called herself “the Immaculate Conception,” his resistance began to crumble. The doctrine of Mary in this role had just been ruled on by the Vatican. He knew there was likely no way a peasant girl who struggled at school would know this term. The shocked expression on the actor’s face and the dramatic music show it. I do agree with the author’s basic premise though that females in cases like these (or in some cases of sexual assault or harassment) are deemed less credible than males.

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