Purpose of ‘Lourdes’ is unclear, but it doesn’t mock pilgrims

  • Thu Apr 1st, 2010 3:07pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” the saying goes, and so does “Lourdes,” an enigmatic movie set at the famed Catholic shrine. This film refuses to explain certain key plot points—perhaps you’re supposed to take them on faith.

Apparently the filmmakers simply shot their film while the regular tourist/religious activities were going on in Lourdes.

The movie takes a poker-faced look at both the tacky gift shops and the sacred stone walls of the country grotto where in 1858 a girl named Bernadette Soubirous said she saw the Virgin Mary appear — which overnight turned the place into a pilgrimage spot for Catholics.

Our central character is a wispy young woman named Christine, played with quiet intensity by the waifish Sylvie Testud. She is on a tour group visiting the shrine, and like many in the group, she is in a wheelchair.

It would be wrong to give too much of the plot away, but things do happen, eventually.

For the first part of the movie, we watch the absorbing rituals of the tour group, which are the same as any tour group, except that these travelers are hoping for a heavenly miracle — to have their ailments healed by exposure to the waters and stones of Lourdes.

Director Jessica Hausner films everything from a distance, as though allowing us to make up our own minds about all this. We can’t help noticing that the Lourdes site resembles any other overdeveloped tourist destination, but the movie isn’t mocking its sincere pilgrims.

It’s more like a summer camp outing, where pilgrims and guides look for the best opportunities to enjoy themselves. Presiding over all is a severe nun, perfectly played by Elina Lowensohn, who keeps the travelers in line and on time (until Lowensohn does it, you wouldn’t think the line “Shhh!” could be this nuanced and revealing).

As for the main character, Christine seems more curious about the lack of local culture, and surreptitiously flirting with a guard, than she is in having her spirituality heightened.

But then there are things about Christine that the film leaves unanswered — a few different motivations are possible for her presence at the shrine, and for events that happen while she’s there.

This makes for an odd, very subtly humorous viewing experience. And like the phenomenon of Lourdes, an inscrutable one.

“Lourdes”

A disabled woman (the waifish Sylvie Testud) goes on a tour group to Lourdes, the famed Catholic shrine, where believers hope to be cured. This distance film, shot on location, keeps its motivations secret, but it’s absorbing to watch the rituals and the plot turns — which would not be out of place in any summer camp. In French, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG for subject matter

Showing: Northwest Film Forum