I have never been to Lourdes, one small town near the Pyrenees in southwestern France, but, considering what I saw from Jessica Hausner’s film “Lourdes”, I think Lourdes looks like a nice place to visit. The hotel shown in the film looks good, and they serve visitors with care and respect. The town has several interesting things to observe, and the landscape surrounding the town is nice to look at; at the meadow around the top of some mountains, you can see the green land below and the other mountains covered with snow at their tops.
But most of people do not come to Lourdes just for enjoying fresh air and pretty scenery. As some of you know, Lourdes has been well-known as a place of the mass pilgrimage since a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous serially encountered the Marian apparition at the grotto outside the town in 1858(Her story was later fictionalized into the novel which was then adapted into 1943 film “The Song of Bernadette”, for which Jennifer Jones won Best Actress Oscar) and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes was established a few years later. It was said that the water from the spring in the grotto had healing power, and many people have been visiting that place with the hope of miraculous healing. I have a certain amount of doubts(according to the scientific analysis done by the chemists, the water is just plain underground water), but, anyway, several cases of ‘miraculous healing’(or scientifically inexplicable medical cases, shall I say) were reported, and some of them were officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.
However, if God exists, and if God really proves his existence to us through the healing water of Lourdes, we may say he is as generous as Las Vegas casino managers. I used the phrase ‘some of them’ in the paragraph above, but that was a mild expression; only 67 cases were recognized as the authentic miracle by the Church after their thorough investigation process(the last recognized one happened in 2005) – that is quite a low odd considering that the place has been visited by around 200 million people since 1860.
None the less, the people still have been coming to Lourdes with the hope not so different from the one we have when we come to Las Vegas, although the chance of getting a jackpot is higher than the chance of getting healed by Lourdes water. Whether this is absurd or not, it is good for the town. Around 5 million people come to this small town with the population of 15,000 every season, so the mass pilgrimage has become its main industry. In one brief shot in the film, the people gather together for a group picture with the Rosary Basilica(built in 1899) behind them, and I could not help but think of the castle in Disneyland. Minus their hopes and beliefs, they are more or less than the tourists visiting a theme park.
I am afraid I sound grouchy to you(I must confess; I am a skeptic atheists whose family is officially Buddhist on the record), so I have to assure you that “Lourdes” is neither anti-religious nor religious. Maintaining its neutral position, it calmly observes the people who visit the town and the other people who help them in this religious system. The caregivers are volunteers, and some of them, if not all of them, are devoted to their work. I was a little touched by a young caregiver who has become a little more serious about her duty than before while helping the disabled people.
A group of pilgrims in the film are as diverse as the passengers in the Airport films, coupled with various kinds of illnesses and disabilities. Many of them need wheelchair or walker to move around; some of them can move for themselves, and the others still need others’ help. We see a mother and her mentally ill daughter in wheelchair who have been to Lourdes many times. We also observe a couple of middle-aged women who seem to come here just for tourism(one of them wants her eczema to be cured, but I do not think she is not that serious) and throw sarcastic one-liners from time to time. In case of another middle-aged woman, she is a quiet lady with faith, but she has some questions to ask during this pilgrimage. And we also have the priest, the guards and their chief, and the caregivers and their strict, fastidious supervisor.
But this is not a variation of that famous movie cliché called “Ark movie”. The movie gives us little knowledge about their backgrounds, let alone their names or the information about their illnesses. For instance, one reviewer said one certain character is the other character’s mother, but I am not so sure about that. Some illnesses like dwarfism are quite apparent to our eyes, but, while watching one character in wheelchair, I was not sure about the cause of her general paralysis. Some character suddenly reveals her health status at one point, but it is because her body cannot help itself, not because she wants to show it to others around her; the movie even avoids the possibility of melodrama inside that character and moves on according to the itinerary.
Their procedures over the week observed in the film are interesting to watch even to the outsiders like me. They visit the grotto, and they wait in a long line(the more you are disabled, the sooner you can go inside the grotto), and they bath with Lourdes water or drink it. The blessing ceremony is held at the big hall filled with lots of the people, and there is an amusing sight in which one of them attempts to move closer to the altar because she thinks that will increase the probability of miracle. They watch the video together showing the testimonies of the people who experienced the miracle(or did they?). They and others gather at Rosary square in the evening where the hundreds of candle lights brighten dark night. On the last day, they will have a picnic at the mountain meadow(It’s only for the people who can walk, by the way), and a farewell party in the evening will follow.
Meanwhile, something happens. Is it a miracle? The movie never explains or tries to explain it. There is no music but only silence in that scene, and the camera quietly focuses on one of the pilgrims, Christine(Sylvie Testud), on her bed at one night. And then, she suddenly begins to do something impossible considering her medical condition. On the next morning, everyone is surprised and most of them naturally think it is another miracle from God.
Or is it? She is soon diagnosed by a doctor for confirming whether it is a miracle or not, and the doctor says it might be the temporary recovery observed in many other people who visited Lourdes, but she is happy to be freer than before. Now she does not need the help from others when she wants to enjoy the ice cream for herself at the cafe in the sunny afternoon, and, when she does it, my God, she does look really happy. I do not remember seeing her in other films before except “La Vie en Rose”(2007), but I can say that Sylvie Testud is a wonderful actress. Though she does not move much in her wheelchair, She slowly holds the movie with her serene, weary face while never asking for pity; we come to care about her(well, who can’t?), and we are joyous to see her face far more brightened than before thanks to this sudden happening.
While it is possible that this is not a miracle, there are lots of questions in the film regardless of how you think about it. As one character asks, what should we do if we want a miracle? Is there any particular way for receiving it from the existence high above the sky? And why does God show his power rarely, though he is said to be almighty enough to heal many sick people on the earth who need help? And, at least in some characters’ view, why does God seem to be not so fair, when there must be people more devoted and desperate than Christine? The people in the movie ask such questions and others to the priest from time to time, but the priest does not give any satisfying answer for them – one of his answers is the one you have probably heard many times from the men of monotheistic religions. To be frank with you, I could not help but burst out a laugh when he said that. Oh, come on, father, that is a cliché – but it can be true, perhaps.
The director Jessica Hausner is not judgmental on her subject or her characters. The camera looks at the people like the unseen observer with a cool, objective attitude and carefully composed shots. In the marvelous opening scene, the camera patiently watches the dining hall while it begins to be occupied by the people one by one, and our attention is slowly increased along with a slow, subtle zoom-in. There is a serious undertone, but the movie is not entirely humorless. There is a small funny joke about Jesus and the Virgin Mary told to the priest, who is a man of religion both easy-going and sincere, and I think it will also make my Catholic acquaintances laugh.
The final sequence of the film, the evening party on their last day, reminds me why some of us, if not all of us, need the religion or its alternatives like Alcoholic Anonymous. The life is basically miserable for most of us(after all, we are approaching to the darkness called death from the beginning), and the life is particularly terrible for the people like Christine, and we all are worried about whether our life has a meaning or not except passing the genetic information to the next generation. Regardless of whether God exists or not, it is nice to be with others, and we are consoled at least for a while that we are not alone, like the people in the film. The music plays, and the people drink, and they dance(but only the people who can move legs, of course). The movie treats Testud and the other actors equally as the human beings with each own matters in its austere but humane view. They show envy and skepticism while congratulating Christine, but it is the behavior as human as the young pretty caregivers showing their interest to the young handsome guards.
“Lourdes” is a very thought-provoking film accessible to you even if you do not have a religion; you will have lots of things to talk and discuss about after watching it. When the final single shot of doubt is hurled in the finale, we have another interesting questions about the ambiguous last shot as a consequence; was it not a miracle, after all, or was it ‘cruel’ miracle and God intended it for a different outcome? And how does Christine think about that? I have no clear conclusion even after re-watching, and neither does the film. Testud neither says nor reveals anything at that moment, either – but let’s say she makes an exit as graceful as the movie does.
Another offer hard to refuse, thanks.
SC: You’re welcome.
Read your essay after the movie–its witty and informative!
SC: Thank you. I like your review, too, by the way.