Anyone who makes the pilgrimage to Lourdes goes there in the hope of a miracle, so any viewer who goes to see a film called ‘Lourdes’ at least expects this central issue to be confronted. That’s quite a challenge for any filmmaker, but Austrian director Jessica Hausner does indeed deal with the issue admirably and in a surprisingly straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. The operative word in that opening sentence however is not ‘miracle’, but ‘hope’, and consequently it’s the human sentiments that are explored in Lourdes and that turns out to be rather more interesting than the divine question.
There’s even almost a documentary realism to the quite deliberately paced narrative, Hausner choosing to lead the viewer through the story as if they were an observer who is part of a group of newly arrived pilgrims, the film opening with their arrival late one day, meeting in the dining area and given instructions from the head of the volunteer nurses, Cécile (Elina Löwensohn) about the timetable they will be following during their stay at Lourdes. Taking up a neutral stance, it’s appropriate then that the person the film follows Christine (Sylvie Testud), a young woman suffering from multiple sclerosis, who, paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, unable even to raise her arms, has made the pilgrimage to Lourdes not so much in the hope of some miracle cure, but simply using it as one of the few opportunities where she can get out and about.
The film explores the dynamic of this diverse little group of pilgrims that Christine is part of, and while some of them are most devout believers, there is a human side also to their belief, all of them are wrapped up in their own needs, hoping desperately for a release from their own suffering and ailments or a reprieve from the condition endured by their severely disabled loved-ones. The priest travelling with them however cautions them about having too high expectations of earthly deliverance, and that miracles can happen in other unseen ways, such as through a strengthening of faith, warning that God may have reasons we can’t imagine for allowing some people to be healthy while some are sick and suffering, and others are indeed cured at holy places like Lourdes.
The thorny question of God’s will, and the human reaction towards it, comes up inevitably in this question of why one person is chosen to be cured, while another, perhaps more deserving, is not. Within this is also the question of what exactly constitutes a miracle, since as the saying goes, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. While these are central questions that do need to be addressed in any film that looks with an uncynical eye at questions of faith and healing (and indeed faith healing) Lourdes doesn’t entirely avoid presenting them in a rather schematic manner, but, at least for the most part, it does so without didactically resorting to homilies, preferring to let the human reactions to the divine mysteries be shown in the hope, disappointment, jealousy and anger of the faces of each of the characters.
While the characterisation might be a little bit predictable in this respect, it is nonetheless accurate in regard to human nature, and extremely well-played by a strong cast headed by Sylvie Testud, who never fails to impress. There is room for some ambiguity – and ambiguity is essential in a film that deals with an indefinable area between the human and the divine – both in the motivations of Christine and in several of the other characters. The earthly sense of youthful carefree freedom and the almost inadvertent arrogance that comes with good health is most evidently contrasted with Christine in the character of Léa Sedoux’s young nurse volunteer, but it’s nicely downplayed by the young actress. The contrasts between human weakness and divine inner strength are however more effectively brought together and contrasted within the single person of Elina Löwensohn’s head nurse Cécile, who shifts between austere strictness and genuine warmth towards those in her care, and perhaps personifies best the silent internal struggle of the faithful. There’s also a quiet dignity, not to mention some gentle humour and wit in Gilette Barbier’s Frau Hartl, the elderly lady who becomes a silent witness and largely ignored companion of Christine.
The observations made in Lourdes then are not particularly deep ones, and the film certainly doesn’t have any great comments to make on religious faith, the veracity or otherwise of miracles and whether they come from within or from a divine source, but it does touch well on the depths of human feeling, human suffering and the inexhaustible wellspring of hope that arises from within it. Its gentle touch and slow pace however might just make this one for the faithful only.