Sydney Penny stars as the visionary saint in "Bernadette". We interviewed Sydney recently about making the film, her career, the spiritual impact of Bernadette, and what she thinks of the future of spiritually themed movies.
How old were you when you played in both films as BERNADETTE? Were they filmed "back to back"?
I was 15 when we filmed "Bernadette" and 18 when we shot the sequel, "La Passion de Bernadette".
How did famed French director, Jean Delannoy, come to contact you for this part?
Jean had auditioned about 400 young actresses in France for the part, but hadn't found anyone who, as he put it, wasn't too voluptuous, too mature in a certain way. He had seen and remembered my performance in another film, surmised that I was about five years older and basically offered me the part. I didn't meet him until I was in France.
Why did you agree to play the main character in these two films?
As an actor, it was a marvelous opportunity for me to play such a role and to be directed by one of France's most well respected directors. As a person, I wanted to be part of something that intended to tell a beautiful story honestly - a story of how a young woman, uneducated, unschooled in catechism, poor and sickly, needed only a willing heart to learn the truth. And that truth led her through adversity, loneliness, controversy, illness and even unto the moment of her death.
Did playing this saint affect you spiritually?
I knew nothing about Bernadette Soubirous before I received the script. The first description I was told was just that she was a young girl from a poor family whose visions of the "Lady in White" elevated her to fame. As I began to learn more about her, I discovered that she was just like so many teenagers - awkward, challenged in her studies, and trying to bear up under the pressures of her family and then later, the pressure the world put on her. I was moved by her honesty and humility and what touched me spiritually was the simple thought that there is a message for each of us, if only we keep our ears open to hear it.
Was BERNADETTE shot on a location near Lourdes?
We shot "Bernadette" in and around Lourdes, France in the dead of winter, 1987. We were unable to film at the actual site of the grotto in Masabielle because it has been so changed since Bernadette's time. Even the river has widened. We found a similar grotto not far away. All of the other locations were in neighboring small villages in the Pyrenees which were absolutely breaktakingly beautiful. We also shot some interiors in studio in Paris.
Syndey Penny prepares for a scene
Describe the exact shooting locales for the film, and what the experience was like.
The film was shot amid gorgeous French scenery. The Pyrenees are so majestic and in the winter covered in snow, it's like being in another world. The shoot was fantastic - quite different than an American shoot, especially at lunch when they set up a huge tent no matter where we were, even perched in a cliff or in the middle of a field of sheep, set the tables with linen and china and served a four-course meal with wine. Very French!
Was the film BERNADETTE shot "twice" - once in English, once in French? If so, how did that work? And are you fluent in French?
It is quite common to dub films into many languages, so when I heard that they wanted to do "Bernadette" in French I wasn't surprised, except that they meant that we were to film it twice : once in English and once in French. Which meant that we shot each scene twice. I told Jean Delannoy that I didn't speak French, and he said it wasn't a problem...I'd learn. I had a coach named Martha Des Cars, who taught me my lines phonetically and after a few weeks I was conversing a little with the crew. I switched from Spanish to French in school and now I am fluent.
Have you been to Nevers to see the incorrupt body of Bernadette?
We filmed "La Passion de Bernadette" in the convent where she lived out her life in Nevers, France. The sisters speak of Bernadette as if she were still among them, and in a way, she is. Bernadette was buried and exhumed three times as part of the canonization process. Each time she was exhumed she was exactly as she had been the last time, uncorrupted. The decision was made to build a glass coffin and leave her lying in state in the sanctuary, which is where she is today. Seeing her was very moving, so tiny and fragile; and it was probably the only time an actor has ever come face to face with the historical figure they were portraying.
The cast and crew of "Bernadette"
Are you aware that BERNADETTE is the "official" film shown daily at the shrine of Lourdes?
I am aware that "Bernadette" is the official film shown in Lourdes. Jean Delannoy set out to make a film that was historically accurate, with no distortions in the telling. Obviously the film need to be dramatic, but the story is moving enough without changing it arbitrarily as had been done before. I am pleased to be part of something that endures and hopefully illuminates and inspires those who visit Lourdes.
What kind of a response have you received in the film world for playing St. Bernadette?
There was great interest by the French press, especially since Jean Delannoy was directing the film, well into his 80s at the time and that an American actress was playing a French saint. But the film world has taken little notice of the film until this time, nearly 17 years later when the industry has grudgingly recognized that people need stories that fuel their soul as well as those that entertain. In general, the film world doesn't respond positively to films with a religious overtone or that is spiritual in nature because it is considered controversial, or that a particular company appears to be espousing a certain religion to the exclusion of others, which may offend some moviegoers. Also, films of this genre oftentimes lack technical merit; the story being the only strength of the film. Mel Gibson's recent success with “The Passion of the Christ” has certainly changed
perceptions in the film world.
How do you feel about the films (both) being released on DVD for the first time in the USA?
I am thrilled that these films are finally being released in the US. It is personally satisfying to me because I have always been proud of these films, although no one was ever able to see them except by traveling to Lourdes. Also, I'm very happy for Jean Delannoy who wrote and directed both films with such energy and devotion.
Are you Catholic?
I am not Catholic. I am a Christian, a Protestant and I have always been a passionate student of religion - all religions - because I believe that truth is available to us all if we desire to know it and listen for it. The litany and the rituals that describe it may be different, yet Truth is universal.
Even though it has been about 17 years since you did this film, how do you feel about being interviewed in (mainly) Catholic press about the USA
release on DVD (and VHS)?
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak about "Bernadette", especially after waiting so long for the film to be introduced in America. I hope the word gets out that there's a film with a beautiful, simple story to tell that is still relevant today, whether one is Catholic or not.
Sydney Penny in a scene from "Bernadette"
What do you think of the story of Lourdes and of St. Bernadette?
The story of Bernadette and Lourdes seems almost incredible, living in these modern times. But many magnificent and incredible things happen every day; we just have developed the habit of analyzing them into insignificance. Bernadette's story is a symbol of hope, an example of the power that one person's faith can have on the world.
How do you think modern audiences would benefit from seeing a film like this about St. Bernadette and the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes?
The virtue of humility and the value of honesty are timeless. Bernadette spoke of what she saw simply as a lady in white - and faith is that pure, that simple. We sometimes trip ourselves up with intellectual, metaphysical questions. Sometimes you just have to trust and believe.
What does Bernadette have to say to today’s young people? Bernadette herself probably wouldn't have given any advice since she was convinced she knew nothing! It's good to remember that even as we strive in our lives and in our careers, that our successes are a reflection of the gifts we are divinely given; we ourselves can create nothing.
How did your perception of St. Bernadette change after you finished the two films?
I think I came to know Bernadette the girl, Bernadette the postulant, Bernadette the person who had far more trials and tribulations than most anyone will ever deal with - illness, poverty, being the center of huge controversy - and yet sailed above it all by holding on to her convictions. And discovered a great spiritual treasure in her heart which she imparted to the world in the process.
Why do you think there is a resurgence of interest in films with an overtly spiritual theme?
I simply think that people crave connection with that which is bigger than they are. Our post-modern, secular, humanist world has devalued man's spiritual side, and, in fact, anything that can't be seen through a microscope or quantified. In the world's desire to know more, we have lost the knowledge of who we really are, why we're here - not just how we got here, but why the life we lead and how we lead it matters.
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