Movies: Lourdes * * * * *
(G, limited release)
Austrian director Jessica Hausner's Lourdes really is a staggering achievement, a film with an atmosphere like no other that sneaks up on you with a steadily accumulated emotional punch. And if its subject matter makes its tone necessarily melancholic, Hausner's film bristles with sly humour, wise insights and an endless parade of delightful classical compositions. The wonder of it all is that the church allowed the director such extensive access to key areas at the French shrine, but she has certainly made good use of them.
French actress Sylvie Testud stars as Christine, a multiple sclerosis sufferer who arrives in Lourdes as part of an Order of Malta pilgrimage. Slightly wistful but surprisingly cheerful, Christine is not especially religious and expects little to come of her trip, which is taken more seriously by the Order of Malta helpers than it is by anyone else. As she follows Christine and the other pilgrims through the bizarre but oddly poetic rituals at the shrine, which involve masses and blessings and many bathings in the blessed waters, Nausner manages superbly to maintain the balance between reverence and scepticism, leaving you to come to your own conclusions about what happens.
Something does happen, enough to convince the excited helpers that they've seen a miracle, but, at several removes, the viewer is left with decidedly mixed emotions. Quietly and cleverly, Nausner allows you to see both sides of the Lourdes experience, from the moving faith of the visiting pilgrims to the money-spinning industry that has grown around the reported visions of a 19th-century peasant.