Interview: ‘Miracle Club’ director on Lourdes, Irish guilt and the power of reconciliation
In 1967, four Dubliners and their long-kept secrets travel to Lourdes in search of a miracle. Chrissie, an Irish woman who sought refuge in the United States for decades after the tragic death of her lover, receives an icy reception from her family members when she returns home for her mother’s funeral. Eileen, once Chrissie’s closest friend, is shocked and startled by her return, chastising Chrissie for her extended absence. And the aging Lily, still haunted by the loss of her young son, remains cautious and distant, hesitant to reach out to Chrissie and thereby reach into a painful past.
Alongside Dolly, the mother of a mute son, these three women see the popular Catholic pilgrimage site of Lourdes as their best chance for an act of God to assuage their troubles. Lourdes’s grotto is the location of 18 Marian apparitions over five months in 1858 to the destitute French teenager Bernadette Soubirous.
In ‘The Miracle Club,’ Thaddeus O’Sullivan is unafraid to explore more serious topics, such as abortion and suicide, and to reckon with the lingering effects of communal grief.
Laura Linney, Kathy Bates and Dame Maggie Smith are the formidable troupe at the center of “The Miracle Club,” set for release on July 14 from Sony Pictures Classics. An adaptation of the short story by Irish writer Jimmy Smallhorne, the film markets itself as a sunny family drama, but the film’s director, Thaddeus O’Sullivan, is unafraid to explore more serious topics, such as abortion and suicide, and to reckon with the lingering effects of communal grief. Still, with its emphasis on family and the miracle of reconciliation, “The Miracle Club” is ultimately a life-affirming tale about what binds us together.
“I was always very interested in [the story] because I grew up as a Catholic in every possible way,” said Mr. O’Sullivan in an interview with America. He described the miracle in this film as the process through which each character engages with their own guilt, a deeply spiritual act rich with sacramental power. The film could be understood as a portrait of unlikely (and initially unwilling) penitents making a literal guilt trip—and moving closer towards a kind of absolution.
Each year, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, situated in the shadow of the Pyrénées mountains, greets more than six million pilgrims, who submerge themselves in the waters of a spring uncovered by Saint Bernadette. The Order of Malta is one Catholic group that offers pilgrims an annual journey to the Grotto of Massabielle, where the Virgin Mary announced herself as the Immaculate Conception. Pope Blessed Pius IX invoked papal infallibility in 1854 when he announced the church’s doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic belief that Mary was born without original sin.
In his youth, Mr. O’Sullivan admits harboring a “very simplistic view” of Lourdes.
“[T]he Church made it clear indeed that the conception of Mary is to be venerated as something extraordinary, wonderful, eminently holy,” wrote the pope in an ex cathedra pronouncement.
Claims of inexplicable healings have long been associated with the holy site. The International Medical Committee of Lourdes, which scrutinizes miracle claims, has confirmed 70 documented miracles over the last 155 years. (Since 2006, healings at Lourdes have been separated into three distinct categories: unexpected, confirmed and exceptional.) These numbers, while the source of great promise to many pilgrims, statistically mean that the vast majority of visitors will not experience a medical miracle—something that the film points out.
“You don’t come to Lourdes for a miracle, Eileen,” says one character. “You come to Lourdes for the strength to go on when there is no miracle.”
It may come as a surprise for viewers to learn that Mr. O’Sullivan, who left his native Ireland at age 18, has never actually visited Lourdes. “I never went to Lourdes myself, but it always loomed large in [my] imagination as a place where Our Lady appeared,” said Mr. O’Sullivan, who added that his parents had made the pilgrimage in the 1950s.
In his youth, he admits harboring a “very simplistic view” of Lourdes, a view that evolved while making the film. Mr. O’Sullivan said he was particularly affected by the stories of non-believers and skeptics who had traveled to the grotto. “When they went [to Lourdes], they were quite surprised by how overwhelmed they felt by the spiritual nature of the people there,” he said.
The film’s characters all have different expectations and reasons for their journey. Mr. O’Sullivan states that Lily, played by Maggie Smith, makes the trip to Lourdes simply “because it’s there,” while Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) hopes that the healing waters can lead her son to speak.
“If I were to visit Lourdes, my expectation would be a very good one,” said Mr. O’Sullivan when asked what his own faith tells him about the site. “I wouldn’t go in with the expectation of [a miracle], but I would go in with the expectation of having a moment for myself, which took me out of normal life and gave me an opportunity for some kind of spiritual engagement.”