Saw the new Austrian film Lourdes at the weekend, even though I can’t pronounce it (I keep saying, “Lords” which makes it sound like a film about cricket, although if you think about it, it is also about Lords, or the Lord). Directed by Jessica Hausner, whose work I confess I am not familiar with (this is probably why I am not the new host of Film 2010), it may be the first U certificate film I’ve seen this year, but it is not for kids. If it weren’t so still and quiet, I’d compare it to Robert Altman; certainly, if he’d ever decided to “do a Nashville” on the holy Pyrenean town of Lourdes, it might have come out a bit like this, in that it’s based around a finite group of pilgrims, many of them disabled or stricken, plus “helpers” ie. volunteers from the Order of Malta. It’s a contemporary film, shot at Lourdes, so you get a close-up documentary-style portrait of the place and its stone-touching, water-splashing rituals, the expected mix of beatific glory and interminable queuing, mountain-backed beauty and souvenir-shop ugliness, faith and commerce. I can’t be the first to note the similarity between the dominant St Therese Basilica and the Disneyland castle. But Hausner eschews any blunt point-scoring, preferring instead to quietly let the pilgrimage play out, allowing us to eavesdrop on the action.
Sylvie Testud plays Christine, a Frenchwoman with multiple sclerosis, paralysed from the neck down and patiently spoon-fed by a raunchy female helper who’d rather be fraternising with the soldiers. It’s Christine’s story, and she fails to adhere to any of drama’s stereotypes of the disabled: she’s not the life and soul of the party, but nor does she play the victim – she is bright and smiling, but not through any refusal to engage with her situation. She wishes she could do as “normal people” do, but she does not rage against God or fate for taking away her motor functions. She is pretty and amiable, but not preternaturally so. This performance carries the film.
In the aforementioned Altman style, we dip in and out of the other pilgrims’ stories, which creates an intriguing and human patchwork of piety and hypocrisy – it’s amazing to see the sheer jealousy between those hoping to be cured; the oneupmanship of who gets to push the wheelchair. I couldn’t help but think that the same film made by the British would descend into farce. But Lourdes manages to be funny without necessarily poking fun, underplaying the gift of an idea that there will be a Best Pilgrim award at the end of the trip (an Oscar-sized Virgin Mary statuette naturally, although only seen from a distance). And the pivotal dramatic event could certainly be taken as a confirmation of God’s mysterious ways, rather than a trendy repudiation of faith. I won’t give it away; I enjoyed not knowing. (It’s been mentioned in other reviews, so beware.)
I have been to Knock, in Ireland, where a similar miracle has turned the place into a shrine, with holy water being decanted into plastic bottles out of taps and incredible tat being hawked without irony in the name of Jesus, so Lourdes itself felt familiar. It would be easy to belittle those who visit it, but Hausner chooses not to, and makes the central priest (Gilette Barbier) neither pious egotist nor happy-clappy clown – rather, he’s actually modern and circumspect, and available for even the most unanswerable query. Cecile (Elina Lowensohn), the chief volunteer, strays closer to stereotype, shushing and ordering everybody about and in the belief that Godliness is next to the ability not to push in, but even her story has a surprise.
In all, a superb, if unnervingly quiet and unshowy film. The only music is religious; most of the time we can hear a pin drop. The camera stays fixed. You must search a large canvas for individuals: in one scene at a blessing, the entire congregation is in shot, and it’s affecting to watch various pilgrims burst into religious tears.
I knew I was going to like it from the opening, fixed, shot: an empty dining room, looking like it’s the 1950s, being prepared for a meal – soup bowls, etc. – and yet there appear to be some tables without chairs set at them. As the pilgrims file in, we see that these are for wheelchair-users. It’s so subtly done (you might not even notice the missing chairs until the first disabled pilgrim glides in), I really felt like I was going to be in safe hands for the next 99 minutes.
I think it’s safe for atheists and Christians to see. And Catholics may need a bit of respite about now.