24 March 2010


Written & Directed by: Jessica Hausner
Full credits at IMDb

Is God good, or is He all-powerful? That’s the driving question—because he can’t be both!—behind Lourdes, a thoughtful, patient and painful meditation on the role of the divine in a miserable and unjust world of cripples and empty religious optimism. Set in the title city, a “touristy” site where the Virgin once appeared to Saint Bernadette (better known as Jennifer Jones), the film takes place over the course of a typical pilgrimage, during which the bemaladied have a full itinerary of visits to potential miracle spots: a sacred stone, blessed springs, a gilded church. A Greek chorus of old ladies gossips about the last person to be healed miraculously and about who could possibly be next. Visitors can only hope it will be them.

Hope seems to be the main target of Lourdes’ mordancy: of all the afflictions to afflict the afflicted, it comes across as the cruelest, more than any spine-paralyzing bug. Even if miracles do actually exist, aren’t they inherently unjust? If God has the power to cure one of us, why wouldn’t he cure all of us? If one person is worthy of a miracle, are the rest of us unworthy? Why? But hope persists because it, and the faith healing as which it manifests, has become an industry, exploited by priests and their higher-ups (to say nothing of a certain president). Institutional corruption is subtly suggested on the film’s periphery: card-playing clergy, flirtatious nurses and gaudy gift shops fill the spaces in Lourdes not occupied by the miracle seeking. The regal church leaders don’t even have the time to bless every un-well visitor who has trekked to town, genuflecting for godly mercy. To cover up its shortcomings, Catholicism (not unlike modern medicine) turns to blame the fetishized victim instead, suggesting that those in wheelchairs stop asking God to heal their bodies and work on healing their own souls: after all, isn’t their infirmity a sort of gift, since it gives them a unique perspective on their life? Oh, don’t make me vomit!

Lourdes is theologically scathing in the questions it raises, but not in the way it raises them. Patiently rolling from place to place—scene to scene, point to moral point—like the wheelchaired pilgrims who occupy its frames, Lourdes (rhymes with “gourd”) starts with the camera perched on high, but slowly, to the ethereal accompaniment of Schubert, lowers to earth, to a man’s-eye level; this isn’t a movie about God’s grace, but about the men who pretend to guard and administer it. As immobile as our heroine, the camera cuts and moves rarely, matter-of-factly depicting paralysis: the spoon-feedings, the liftings into bed. Our guide through this world of rituals both religious and paralytic is Christine (Sylvie Testud), a kind, generally positive, sclerotic woman in a wheelchair. Testud is extraordinary: hope creeps into her face as she brushes the holy rock, and embarrassment at such optimism floods over her immediately after, her visage quickly resettling into its usual contortion of contained fear, exasperation, and hints of jealousy (toward all the able-bodied youths around her), concealed beneath a polite veneer. Like her face, the film is powerful for what it suggests rather than what it stresses, for the way Hausner lets the criticisms creep up from the margins. Lourdes raises richly complex theological quandaries. It isn’t didactic—but it’s devastating, in its quiet, graceful way. Grade: A-

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