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In the late 1980s, Jean Delannoy, one of Frances foremost filmmakers,
and its sequel, La Passion de Bernadette, both about St. Bernadette
and the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes. Bernadette was highly
recommended by the Vatican as a "sensitive portrayal of a very moving
story that deserves a wide audience" and the film was chosen to be shown
daily at the shrine in Lourdes.
until very recently the films were not available in the United States. Now
Bernadette has been released (VHS
and the actress who played St. Bernadette, American Sydney Penny, spoke
about the films, her experience making them, and what Bernadette means to
Penny is an accomplished actress, appearing on numerous television shows
and in several films. She received critical acclaim for her performance
as young Meggie in the hit ABC miniseries, "The Thorn Birds," and she played
the popular role of B.J. Walker in the daytime serial, "Santa Barbara, "
and earned herself an Emmy nomination. Other credits include a co-starring
role in the syndicated television series, "The New Gidget" and roles in
the movies, Pale Rider (1985), with Clint Eastwood and Running
Away with Sophia Loren. She has made guest appearances on a variety
of prime-time shows, including Jack's Place, The Twilight Zone, and
How old were you when you played in both films as Bernadette?
Were they filmed back to back?
Penny: I was fifteen when we filmed Bernadette and eighteen when
we shot the sequel, La Passion de Bernadette.
How did famed French director, Jean Delannoy, come to contact you for
Sydney Penny: 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?
Sydney Penny: 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?
Sydney Penny: 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?
Sydney Penny: 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.
Describe the exact shooting locales for the film, and what the experience
Sydney Penny: 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 shot twice once in English, once in French? If so,
how did that work? And are you fluent in French?
Sydney Penny: 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?
Sydney Penny: 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.
Are you aware that Bernadette is the "official" film shown daily at the
shrine of Lourdes?
Sydney Penny: 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
Penny: There was great interest by the French press, especially since
Jean Delannoy was directing the film, well into his eighties 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 seventeen 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
How do you feel about the both films being released on DVD for the
first time in the United States?
Sydney Penny: I am thrilled that these films are finally being released
in the United States. 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?
Sydney Penny: 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 seventeen years since you did this
film, how do you feel about being interviewed by mostly Catholic press about
the American release on DVD (and VHS)?
Sydney Penny: 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
What do you think of the story of Lourdes and of St. Bernadette?
Sydney Penny: The story of Bernadette and Lourdes seems almost incredible,
living in these modern times. But many magnificent and incredible
things happen everyday, 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
Sydney Penny: 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 todays young people?
Sydney Penny: 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
How did your perception of St. Bernadette change after you finished
the two films?
Sydney Penny: 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?
Sydney Penny: 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
From Jean Delannoy, one of Frances foremost filmmakers, comes this
top quality feature film production of the story of St. Bernadette and the
apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes. Actress Sydney Penny gives a beautiful
performance as Bernadette, and the rest of the cast is equally superb. Also
stars Roland Lesaffre and Michele Simonnet. It is highly recommended by
the Vatican as a "sensitive portrayal of a very moving story that deserves
a wide audience." Shot on location in France with outstanding cinematography
and a beautiful music score, this is the film that was chosen to be shown
daily at the shrine in Lourdes. 120 minutes, Color.
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