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James Martin, S.J.February 20, 2010


Mes chers amis.  Last night I saw an extraordinary new movie called "Lourdes," directed by the Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner, and starring a luminous Sylvie Testud as a more-or-less believing pilgrim who suffers from mulitiple sclerosis.  Christine has come to the French shrine in the Pyrenees for healing as a guest of the Order of Malta.  She admits, however, that she goes on pilgrimages mainly to travel: it's hard to travel with MS otherwise, she explains.  Plus, she confides to a solicitous Knight of Malta, she liked Rome better.  "More cultural."  Elina Lowensohn is featured as Cecile, a hard-working, hard-driving and sometimes astringent Dame of Malta.  "Do you think you'll be healed faster if you push to the front of the line?" she asks Christine and a companion who has moved her up during a Benediction.  But Cecile's Martha-like activity conceals a deep secret. 

The film perfectly depicts the humanity, the reality of Lourdes: the crowds of people squeezing into the grand underground basilica (somehow the filmmakers received permission to film actual liturgies; a Benediction by Cardinal Roger Mahony features prominently); the members of the Order of Malta silently pushing the malades in their carts across the Gave River; the functional hostels and hotels where everything seems to be tiled, as in a hospital; the often overcast and chilly weather punctuated by flashes of sunlight; and other scenes that faithfully convey a sense of the place.  Doubtless the subject material would have put the film on my "must-see" list, but this rave review in The New York Times convinced me to see it a few days after it opened.

"Lourdes" shows the mix of approaches to the miraculous, even among believers.  Half-way through the film, Christine experiences a miraculous recovery--beautifully filmed--or does she?  One doctor is not sure; the other is.  An amusing, and very French, duo of middle-age women argue throughout the film over what counts as a "real" miracle.  Towards the end the same two pilgrims sit in a Lourdes hotel, and, over dinner, one wonders about God's failing to heal everyone, "If God is not in charge," she asks her companion, "who is?"  The other pauses to consider the question and then says, "I hope they have a good dessert here."  A priest sometimes fares rather well with difficult questions about suffering.  But, as in real life, not always: some of his answers limp.  Once again, reality.  Overall, "Lourdes" reminded me of the film "Into Great Silence," about the Grande Chartreuse monastery (and not simply because I saw it in the same theater!)  Quiet, slow, deliberate, important, mysterious, profound.

The Jesuit with whom I watched it noticed a simple image that I had missed: Christine's quiet and unobtrusive middle-aged roommate, Madame Hartl, whose malady is never revealed, purchases a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes and carefully places it on the nightstand in their shared room.  "Isn't she beautiful?" she asks a silent Christine, who lies in her bed, hands curled by MS.  "She is watching over us."  Later, when Christine is temporarily abandoned by a Dame of Malta (whose head is turned by an attractive Knight of Malta) Madame Hartl instinctively moves to Christine's wheelchair to give her a push.  And when the miracle occurs, Madame watches the drama generously.  My Jesuit friend said, "She was God.  Always watching.  Always listening.  Always ready."

But watch this movie for yourself.  The trailer doesn't do it justice, but it begins to give you a flavor of its quiet beauty.

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Deann Lindstrom
10 years 3 months ago
Thank you for this wonderful review.  I, too, was particularly interested in Madame Hartl's role.  It seemed to me to be much more than it appeared.  I very much appreciate your Jesuit friend's observation: "She was God.  Always watching.  Always listening.  Always ready."  Madame Hartl is not pretty, is not visually remarkable, but is always, always there, ready and willing.
Gerelyn Hollingsworth
12 years 4 months ago
Sounds good.

Not a movie I would ever have considered going to, but reading your review makes me want to see it.

I enjoyed reading pages of your book on Lourdes on Amazon, too.

Margaret Riordan
12 years 4 months ago
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this movie, which looks remarkable and quite beautiful. I hope it ends up coming to New Zealand - at least in a film festival.
I am a 'nearly-not' Catholic but in 2006 I spent six days in Lourdes. I first arrived there mostly out of curiosity, for an afternoon. But I was quietly seduced before that afternoon was out. There was....the quiet care for the sick and the disabled; the prayerfulness of the Mariale procession with candles in the evening; the beauty of the Sanctuary area with the river Gave coursing through the grounds...
I have 'almost but not quite' left the church..... but the memory of the special days I spent in Lourdes is one of the things that keeps me hanging in on the edges.
12 years 4 months ago
Are there any definitive descriptions of the cures at Lourdes.  I was on a site where someone claimed nothing really every happened.  What cures there have been could be explained by the normal unusual recovery that occasionally happens from severe illness.  Not having anything conclusive I was unable to challenge the person.
12 years 4 months ago
Thank you Fr. Martin.  I ordered both the Harris book and your book.
David Gibboni
12 years 4 months ago
Looks like a good film.  Reminds me of your story of watching "Song of Bernadette" for the first time...
Joseph Farrell
12 years 4 months ago
Thanks for the fine review, Father.  I've been looking for an excuse to head up to New York from Philly and this seemed like as good of an excuse as any.  I look forward to seeing the movie next week.

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