Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Notorious: Celebrating the Ingrid Bergman Centenary. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Without a sense of spirituality or religious/moral undertones, Leo McCarey’s Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) feigns notions of faith in lieu of a more secular, accessible film. To some extent, the characters don’t really fit the roles of priest and nuns, and the setting of St. Mary’s appears more as a backdrop to an otherwise traditional Golden ’40s Hollywood Film. The film more strongly conveys typical American values, by way of a church/school setting, than it does values of spirituality or faith (such as the films of foreign filmmakers Carl Theodor Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, etc.) Bells of St. Mary’s, while sharing some amount of moral candidness, is truly another run-of-the-mill Hollywood film full of clichés and melodrama to satiate the appetite of popcorn movie-watchers.
Convincing even though the filming and story is oft questionable, Ingrid Bergman is stellar in the role of Sister Mary Benedict.
Throughout the film, certain secular ideals of the priest (Bing Crosby) contrast the holy and traditional ideals of sister superior (Ingrid Bergman), and are presented in how the children are treated, how they behave, and how they think. There is a definite commentary on the emergence of modernity over traditional values. The old St. Mary’s is on the brink of being condemned, and the scrooge next door, Horace P. Bogardas (Henry Travers), wishes to buy the lot to make way for employee parking. The obvious symbolism is not lost here, nor is it lost throughout the film, as Bogardas begins to experience a change of heart and ultimately donates his building to the church out of generosity.
A replacement for the former priest, Father O’Malley brings a much needed sense of practicality to the school. While the nuns pray for generosity, O’Malley seeks to find solutions through more concrete means. He validates pride and values uniqueness and common sense. He is unlike most priests one would encounter. In fact, he seems more a representation of good American men rather than good priests. In contradistinction, sister superior relies on faith and her upbringing, which directs her in making decisions about the children and helps her to behave in line with her faith in God’s will. She too, however, is not a cliché nun. She is a former tomboy who teaches a young boy how to box and laughs a great deal. Neither priest nor nun show the wisdom, seriousness, or grace of their supposed positions. This makes their characters quite relatable, but also overly caricatures them, transforming reality into escapist fluff.
Bells of St. Mary’s, while sharing some amount of moral candidness, is truly another run-of-the-mill Hollywood film full of clichés and melodrama to satiate the appetite of popcorn movie-watchers.
Convincing even though the filming and story is oft questionable, Ingrid Bergman is stellar in the role of Sister Mary Benedict. There are many scenes in which her innocence, grace, and vulnerability elicit powerfully emotional moments, for example when she shadow-boxes in secret silence, when she sings in Swedish, and when she makes her final prayer to God before being transferred.
Classical music appears throughout the film, with many diegetic songs played on the piano. Bing Crosby sings in a terribly lip-synched fashion on a number of occasions. The majority of standalone song scenes are rather banal and underwhelming. Such are many scenes in the film which are exceptionally long, unnecessary, or trivial. For example, the subplot of Patsy’s mother is not only unnecessary but completely nonsensical. After 13 years, the husband returns and is accepted into the home as if nothing had happened. A song begins shortly after their reconnection and the psychology behind a broken family being reborn is not considered in the slightest.
The Bells of St. Mary’s is conventionally shot in black and white. Some pans and wipes are used, but otherwise the cinematography is rather unremarkable. There are a few great cinematic moments, such as the shot of the nuns entering to greet Father O’Malley for the first time. His back faces the camera as the nuns cross his shadow from all directions in a well-choreographed fashion. Pleasant use of superimposition during the scenes in Bogardas’ building share insight into the characters’ psychologies, namely Mary and Bogardas. And the final and most arresting shot in the film involves Bergman in tears praying in close up. There is a soft-slow rhythm to create a heavy sense of time and pressure, as she pleads, “Please remove all bitterness from my heart. Help me see your holy will in all things.” Her prayer is later answered in a final gesture by Father O’Malley. This sequence is a superbly crafted piece of scriptwriting and the hidden gem within an otherwise lusterless film.
Light comedy sprinkles the film, sometimes visual such as the father accidentally leaning on a buzzer and a cat getting lost in a hat, and sometimes through quick-witted dialogue. This corresponds with the film’s open and approachable Hollywood design, wherein cliché and obvious symbolism reign. Predictably, Bogardas has a bad heart, symbolic of his inherent bitterness. His gesture of generosity, a predictable end to the film, shares the same old story of old miser seeing the light in his final days. Overall, while the film is easy to watch and rather entertaining, it lacks a defining thread. It is feebly held together by a number of different parts and convoluted values which fail to offer a sincere message beyond ‘kindness is good.’
Though sharing some amount of moral candidness, The Bells of St. Mary’s is truly another run-of-the-mill Hollywood film full of clichés and melodrama to satiate the appetite of popcorn movie-watchers.