Lourdes

Lourdes

****

Reviewed by: Val Kermode

What began in the planning stage as a study on the concept of miracles has turned into a fine and absorbing study of human nature which has won six awards, four of them from the Venice Film Festival.

Christine(Sylvie Testud) is one of a party of pilgrims to the holy shrine of Lourdes. All we know about her is that she has multiple sclerosis, is paraplegic and feels that life is passing her by. She is not especially devout. She has been on other pilgrimages as a way to do some travelling. Otherwise, how would she ever get out? When she asks a priest if she will be blessed with the gift of becoming able-bodied, he says that first she must work on healing her soul. The miracle on offer here is the learning of acceptance. A physical cure is just an extremely rare bonus.

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Hausner places us alongside Christine, to view this pilgrimage through her eyes and to witness other people's interaction with a disability, whether it is kind or patronising. For those of us who have never been there, it is fascinating to see this Catholic Disneyland and the process of pilgrimage. We see the enormous gift shops with their neon-haloed madonnas, but the pace of the film allows us to contemplate the very real sadness and hope of those who go there.

The other members of the party are gradually introduced, as are the volunteers who look after them. There are scenes of great tenderness, but there is also a casual disregard for feelings as the young helpers flirt among themselves and discuss skiing holidays while the pilgrims sit looking on. A day trip up the mountain is arranged which only the able-bodied will be able to take part in.

We hear almost from the outset that sometimes “cures” happen, but may only be temporary. A cure has to be permanent to count as a miracle. The tension is maintained throughout as we wait to see whether and how this will happen for Christine. When something does happen it affects everyone around her. There are the obvious questions - Why me? Why not me? Through the concept of a miracle we witness many aspects of human nature – guilt, envy, embarrassment, the need to be needed. Most tellingly, we see how people with disabilities may not be regarded as sexual beings and how a concern about someone's fragility can be an excuse to avoid interaction.

This is a film with a fine regard for detail, and it is neither mocking nor deferential. The priests have their arguments about religion, while the quiet reactions of those in the background are often just as important. It is filmed in a very straightforward way, almost like a documentary at times. The tension continues, as we never know quite how things are going to turn out, and the ending is beautifully judged, ensuring that you will go on thinking about this long after you leave the cinema.

Incidentally, I found myself hoping that disabled actors were chosen for this film (and some obviously were), while at the same time hoping that not all of the people in wheelchairs were really disabled. As a currently able-bodied person, I would be interested to hear what people with disabilities think of this film.

Reviewed on: 13 Apr 2010
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The story of a wheelchair-using woman's pilgrimage in search of a miracle.
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