As a former Catholic school student, I'm used to seeing overwhelmingly negative depictions in the media. The Bells of St. Mary's, therefore, turned out to be a very welcome surprise. Despite the myriad differences between Catholic schools of the 40's and Catholic schools of the 90's and 2000's, I could relate to this film far more easily than any modern portrayal I've seen.
The story revolves around a priest, Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) who is assigned to oversee a school headed by Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). They both have dramatically opposing viewpoints and clash throughout the film, but each is rooted in what they believe is truly best for the children in their care; this is very true to my own experiences with priests and nuns in educational settings, so I appreciated the care given to both points of view.
One theme of the movie hit especially close to home for me, and that was the financial troubles facing St. Mary's. Unfortunately, this is one issue that hasn't changed over the years. My former elementary school was forced to shut its doors a few years ago, as was the other school in the same town, the elementary school that was attached to my former high school, and another high school in the diocese, just to name a few examples. Sister Benedict's prayers for a miracle were particularly touching since I've seen firsthand that often in those situations, nothing short of a miracle will help.
I obviously enjoyed this movie on a personal level, but as a film itself it was definitely worth watching. Bergman and Crosby are a wonderful match, and their good-natured quarreling is highly amusing, especially as they slowly learn to see from each other's perspectives (Sister Benedict as a boxing instructor, anyone?). The "miracle" they finally receive is more than a bit far-fetched, but it works in context and is a nice way to wrap up that part of the story.
I also really liked Patsy's side plot, because I think her revelation at the end is something anyone can relate to -- who hasn't hesitated to leave someplace that had become a second home? Even now as a college student I joke about deliberately failing a semester or two just to postpone graduation, so I knew exactly what Patsy was feeling. Sister Benedict's leniency here showed just how well she understood her students. Art-to-life ratio aside, I think the principal characters' dedication to the students is what makes this film work as well as it does.