The Song of Bernadette is a 1943 drama film that tells the story of Bernadette Soubirous (later, Saint Bernadette), who, from February to July 1858 in Lourdes, France, reported eighteen visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was directed by Henry King.
The film was adapted by George Seaton from the 1941 novel The Song of Bernadette, written by Franz Werfel. The novel was extremely popular, spending more than a year on The New York Times Best Seller list and thirteen weeks heading the list. The story was also turned into a Broadway play, which opened at the Belasco Theatre in March 1943.
François Soubirous (Roman Bohnen), a former miller now unemployed, is forced to take odd jobs and live at the city jail with his wife (Anne Revere), his two sons, and his two daughters. One morning he goes to find work, and is told to take contaminated trash from the hospital and dump it in the cave at Massabielle.
At the Catholic school (run by the Sisters of Charity of Nevers) that she and her sisters attend, fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous (Jennifer Jones) is shamed in front of the class by Sister Vauzous, the teacher (Gladys Cooper), for not having learned her catechism well. Her sister Marie (Ermadean Walters) explains that Bernadette was out sick with asthma. Abbé Dominique Peyramale (Charles Bickford) enters and awards the students holy cards, but is told by Sister Vauzous that Bernadette does not deserve one, because she has not studied, and that it would not be fair to the other students. Peyramale encourages Bernadette to study harder.
Later that afternoon, on an errand with her sister Marie and school friend Jeanne (Mary Anderson) to collect firewood outside the town of Lourdes, Bernadette is left behind when her companions warn her not to wade through the cold river by the Massabielle caves for fear of taking ill. About to cross anyway, Bernadette is distracted by a strange breeze and a change in the light. Investigating the cave, she finds a beautiful lady (Linda Darnell) standing in brilliant light, holding a pearl rosary. She tells her sister and friend, who promise not to tell anyone else. They do tell, however, and the story soon spreads all over town.
Many, including Bernadette’s Aunt Bernarde (Blanche Yurka), are convinced of her sincerity and stand up for her against her disbelieving parents, but Bernadette faces civil and church authorities alone. Repeatedly questioned, she stands solidly behind her seemingly unbelievable story and continues to return to the cave as the lady has asked. She faces ridicule as the lady tells her to drink and wash at a spring that doesn’t exist, but digs a hole in the ground and uses the wet sand and mud. The water begins to flow later and exhibits miraculous healing properties. The lady finally identifies herself as “the Immaculate Conception“. Civil authorities try to have Bernadette declared insane, while Abbé Peyramale, the fatherly cleric who once doubted her and now becomes her staunchest ally, asks for a formal investigation to find out if Bernadette is a fraud, insane, or genuine.
The grotto is closed and the Bishop of Tarbes (Charles Waldron) declares that unless the Emperor (Jerome Cowan) orders the grotto to be opened, there will be no investigation by the church. He says this will be a test for Bernadette’s “lady”. Shortly thereafter, the Emperor’s infant son falls ill and, under instructions from the Empress (Patricia Morison), the child’s nanny obtains a bottle of the water. Arrested for violating the closure order, she appears in court, identifies herself as the Empress’ employee, and pays the fines of the other persons who attempted to enter the grotto, so that they will not have to serve time in jail. The magistrate permits her to go and to take the bottle of water with her. The Emperor’s son drinks the water and recovers. The Empress believes that his recovery is miraculous, but the Emperor is not sure. The Empress upbraids him for doubting God, and at her insistence, the Emperor gives the order to reopen the grotto. The Bishop of Tarbes then directs the commission to convene. The investigation takes many years, and Bernadette is questioned again and again, but the commission eventually determines that Bernadette experienced visions and was visited by the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.
Bernadette prefers to go on with an ordinary life, work, and possible marriage, but Peyramale does not think it is appropriate to turn Bernadette loose in the world, and persuades her to become a nun at the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers, the Saint Gildard Convent. She is subjected to normal although rigorous spiritual training and hard work, but also emotional abuse from a cold and sinister Sister Vauzous, her former teacher at school, who is now mistress of novices at the convent. Sister Vauzous is skeptically jealous of all the attention Bernadette has been receiving as a result of the visions. She reveals this to Bernadette, saying she is angry that God would choose Bernadette instead of her when she has spent her life in suffering in service of God. She says Bernadette has not suffered enough and wants a “sign” proving Bernadette really was chosen by Heaven.
Bernadette is diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone, which causes intense pain, yet she has never complained or so much as mentioned it. The jealous Sister Vauzous, realizing her error and Bernadette’s saintliness, begs for forgiveness in the chapel, and vows to serve Bernadette for the rest of her life. Knowing she is dying, Bernadette sends for Abbé Peyramale (who in reality died a few years before Bernadette) and tells him of her feelings of unworthiness and her concern that she will never see the lady again. But the lady appears in the room, smiling and holding out her arms. Only Bernadette can see her, however, and with a cry of “I love you! I love you! Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me”, she reaches out to the apparition, and falls back dead. Peyramale utters the final words of the film, “You are now in Heaven and on earth. Your life begins, O Bernadette”.