Situated at the foothills of the Pyrenees Lourdes is a small market town made famous for the reported apparition of the Virgin Mary to a young peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous that supposedly occurred in 1858. The apparition is reported to have appeared a total of eighteen times to Bernadette and since then the site has become the most frequented pilgrimage sight for Roman Catholics due to the alleged 'miraculous healings' that has occurred at the sight. Even to this day the small population of Lourdes still sees up to 5 million pilgrims a year come from miles in hope of witnessing something extraordinary, but can the same be said of this low budget, French film?
Golden Lion nominee Lourdes is certainly a film stepped in all religious surroundings and beliefs that you'd expect. The story here, and the camera focuses on wheelchair-bound Christine, (Sylvie Testud, La Vie En Rose, L'Heritage) a MS sufferer who for us will act as our case study as we delve into this world of heightened beliefs and strong wills. Christine, as part of a church excursion has made the pilgrimage to Lourdes, not necessarily for a miraculous cure but as its one of the only ways she gets to go anywhere due to her condition. We follow Christine closely as she and the other pilgrims, each disabled in their own way, take refuge in a cold sterile hotel. When their not sat at there cold formica tables, eating what can only be described as plain but plentiful fare their off on daily outings to see the sights of Lourdes, each hoping to be blessed with a miracle cure for their afflictions.
Austrian director Jessica Hausner's (Lovely Rita, Hotel) beautifully shot, moving, art house picture approaches this religious anomaly at what at first can only be described as an agonisingly slow paced, documentary style story. Refusing to take a stance on whether or not the town really is a spiritual beacon or in fact just a tourist park for devoted followers of the Catholic belief system. When the story shifts towards the miracles that are deemed to have occurred at Lourdes instead of validating or dismissing them Hausner instead focuses on why certain people are 'chosen' and why others aren't and the effects of those around them a how it effects their belief structure.
Although there is a minor sub plot involving Christine and her assistant both trying to attract one of the young male helpers, the story hardly strays from its main subject. With religion being such a difficult subject to tackle when making a film (considering your releasing a piece of work to an unknown audience) Hausner manages to succesfully keep things accurate whilst still implementing some fine comedic moments that shouldn't cause offence or undermine from the serious message that some of the characters are attempting to convey,
Directed with the same voyeuristic approach as her fellow countryman, Michael Haneke, Lourdes is not the religious study that many may believe it to be due to the connotations its name brings. Hausner has instead created a wonderful character study of how beliefs can be heightened or stretched, whether it be the miraculous rehabilitation of a “less pious than she should be” individual or the crushing revelation of the poor health of a devout follower of the church. Lourdes, in conclusion, is a well made character study with some wonderful performances, that given the style of the piece are imperative to make the movie the compelling performance driven vehicle about human beliefs that it is and not just another stale depictions of an otherwise, only mildly interesting phenomenon.
This film though will obviously attract a religious crowd, in fact its scheduled for a screening in Lourdes at one of the sights it was filmed. Many will see Hausners staunch, 'on the fence' stance as a safe guard from any controversy from this audience, but its for more reasons than this, instead it relies on the fact that there is no undeniable proof either way, leaving you with the same situation as most of the pilgrims and their aids, to take what you see and accredit it to your own belief system.