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.