Viewer Guide: The Song of Bernadette and The Carer

July 19, 2019 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña. 

REEL 13 CLASSIC | THE SONG OF BERNADETTE

This week’s classic is The Song of Bernadette, a 1943 biographical religious drama directed by Henry King.

Based on author Franz Werfel’s best-selling novel on the life story of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, The Song of Bernadette begins its account in 1858 at the cramped and impoverished home of the Soubirous family, who are just barely eking out an existence in the then quiet and unremarkable village of Lourdes in the south of France. An asthmatic and sickly girl of 14, played by Jennifer Jones in an Oscar-winning performance, Bernadette can only be of limited assistance to her overworked and overwhelmed parents, played by Anne Revere and Roman Bohnen, who live with a constant concern for Bernadette’s delicate health. But at her Catholic School, Bernadette receives no special accommodation for her frequent absences, especially from the strict and unforgiving Sister Vauzous, played by Gladys Cooper.

One day after receiving reluctant permission from her mother to help gather fire wood with her two sisters, Bernadette beholds an astonishing vision of a “beautiful lady”—presumably the Virgin Mary, although never identified as such—who only Bernadette can see. Despite her parents fears their daughter will become the town laughing stock, Bernadette obeys the lady’s request to return for the next 15 days, quickly attracting the attention of curious followers—as well as the scrutiny and skepticism of various local bureaucrats. And what begins as an adolescent girl’s private epiphany rapidly escalates into a battle of faith versus science on an international scale, extending all the way from Emperor Napoleon III to the Vatican. Also featured is Charles Bickford as Father Peyramale, whose support for Bernadette is slow to form, along with Lee J. Cobb, Aubrey Mather, Charles Dingle and Vincent Price among the chief “doubting Thomases” of town officials.

A critical and box office success at the time of its 1943 release, The Song of Bernadette had its origins in author Franz Werfel’s fictionalized novel of the life story of Bernadette Soubirous, whose visions of a “beautiful lady” transformed the sleepy village of Lourdes, France, into one of the leading sites of Christian pilgrimage that it is today. A German-speaking Jew born in Prague but educated in Catholic schools, Werfel had fled to Marseille after the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in 1938. Attempting to escape to Spain following the Nazi takeover of France in 1940, Werfel found shelter in Lourdes, where he heard the story of Bernadette and pledged to write about her if he survived the war. Survive he did, eventually settling in Los Angeles, then making good on his promise with the publication of his best-selling novel in 1941.

Snapping up the film rights, 20th Century Fox allegedly sifted through 2,000 hopefuls vying for the role of Bernadette. Among the leading contenders were established stars such as Anne Baxter and Linda Darnell, but Jennifer Jones was the only one who, according to veteran director Henry King, “looked as if she saw a vision.” A protégé—and then later the wife—of powerful movie mogul David O. Selznick, Jones received “introduced by” billing, but in fact she had already made two films under her real name, Phylis Isley. Linda Darnell still ended up in the final film in an uncredited appearance as “the beautiful lady,” a somewhat ironic casting decision given her prior status as one of Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck’s personal obsessions. Nominated for twelve Academy Awards including Best Picture, the film picked up top honors for art direction, cinematography and score as well as Best Actress for Jennifer Jones.

REEL 13 INDIE | THE CARER

This week’s indie is The Carer, A 2016 comedy-drama directed by János Edelényi.

As the legendary American actor John Barrymore once remarked, “a man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” And in The Carer, such a decline seems to be the case with Sir Michael Gifford, an illustrious British star of stage and screen who once dazzled audiences with his Shakespearean prowess. But as played by the similarly acclaimed Scottish-born actor Brian Cox, Sir Michael has faded from view into old age as a curmudgeonly recluse, now spending most of his energy “not going gentle into that good night,” in the words of Dylan Thomas. Despite a palatial country estate and the support of a loyal staff who somehow are still able to tolerate his petty and sometimes racist tirades, Sir Michael must endure all the same indignities of aging faced by everyone else, regardless of fame and fortune. Suffering from Parkinson’s and prone to falls and bathroom accidents, Michael clearly needs fulltime assistance, a task that falls to his semi-estranged daughter Sophia, who struggles to find—and keep—a live-in caregiver for him. But with the arrival of Dorottya, an aspiring Hungarian actress played Coco König, the power dynamic of the household begins to shift: where Sir Michael is critical and alienating, Dorottya is tolerant and steadfast. And unlike Sir Michael’s previous caregivers, instead of living in terror of his next tantrum, Dorottya’s pragmatic good nature—and ability to quote Shakespeare—gradually begins to rehabilitate some of Sir Michael’s regrets back into dreams.

What is it about actors and aging? There seems to be a world-wide genre of films dealing with the vicissitudes of actors passing on to their not so golden years—works ranging from France’s La Fin du Jour to China’s Just for Fun, passing through such treats as the Swiss documentary Tosca’s Kiss, about a retirement home for opera singers. And who can forget Sunset Boulvard? Perhaps the combination of those who have spent their lives preparing to perform and a reality for which there can be no real preparation is simply too attractive to let pass by. Director János Edelényi hails from Hungary, and brought with him for this British production cinematographer Tibor Mathé, who creates a luminous warmth for all the spaces of Sir Michael’s somewhat overwhelming manor. And like Sir Michael, Brian Cox has also been extensively honored for his work in the theater, winning two Olivier Awards for his performances in Rat in the Skull in 1984 and Titus Andronicus in 1988. For eight months, Cox starred in the London West End production of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N Roll, later reprising his performance on Broadway in 2007. In 2000, he was honored with a Primetime Emmy Award for his performance as Hermann Goering in the miniseries Nuremberg, and received an Emmy nomination for his guest appearance on the hit comedy series Frasier in 2001. Currently, Cox is starring in the HBO series Succession.

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