Lourdes -- Film Review

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Filmed in an austere, near-documentary style, "Lourdes" takes viewers deep inside one of the world's most popular religious shrines. Writer-director Jessica Hausner uses a multiple sclerosis patient as a sort of case study to show how the site operates as well as to question the sources of religious faith. Fascinating on social and theological levels, the film is less compelling as a straightforward narrative. Still, adventurous filmgoers will be rewarded by its unusually open-ended storyline.

Over 1 million "pilgrims" visit Lourdes each year, seeking comfort for physical or mental ailments. Hausner focuses on Christine (Sylvie Testud), a pretty, likeable woman confined to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis. She is part of a group of pilgrims with various levels of disabilities led by the grim and severe Cecile (Elina Lowensohn). Dependent on volunteer caretakers like Maria (Lea Seydoux) to feed and clothe her, Christine still has a sense of humor and a playful skepticism about the shrine.

Like the other pilgrims and volunteers, Christine, Cecile and Maria are embarking on a weeklong adventure, and all three are tested in ways they, and the viewers, can't anticipate. Without judging the devout, Hausner addresses the core contradictions in religions like Catholicism with simple but deeply moving scenes. She also finds adroit ways to pose agonizing dilemmas: Why does one person suffer and not another? What God would permit disease? Few motion pictures try to address such fundamental philosophical problems, especially not with Hausner's disarming sympathy and grace.

Much of "Lourdes" is devoted to the shrine and its workings. Using formal compositions and minimal camera movement, cinematographer Martin Gschlacht lets Lourdes, with all its size and opulence, speak for itself. Shots in which hundreds of wheelchairs line up in rows, or thousands of pilgrims hold candles aloft in a nighttime courtyard, are simply breathtaking. Stunning in a different fashion: statues with neon halos, stores filled with religious bric-a-brac, the sacred reduced to the profane.

Hausner proves an excellent director of actors. In a difficult role as Christine, Testud (who has a key role in Johnnie To's "Vengeance") is polished and appealing. Lowensohn is equally assured in a part that unfolds in halting, painful steps. Also impressive is Gerhard Liebmann as a priest who must give advice to desperate and demanding pilgrims.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of "Lourdes" is its tone, unusually fair-minded despite its provocative subject matter. The shrine is big business, a way to institutionalize miracles, and Hausner captures its crass, vulgar aspects with a pitiless eye. But it also is a place of inexplicable occurrences, and the film finds a way to show the hunger for faith with tolerance and doubt. The miracles in "Lourdes" cause more problems than they cure, a point of view that is simultaneously hard-edged and generous. Hausner's film is about as far away from mainstream escapism as you could imagine. It also is satisfying in ways that fiction rarely achieves.

Opened: Wednesday, Feb. 17 (Palisades Tartan)
Production: Coop99 Filmproduktion, Essential Filmproduktion, Parisienne de Production, Thermidor Filmproduktion, in association with Arte France Cinema, ZDF/Arte
Cast: Sylvie Testud, Lea Seydoux, Bruno Todeschini, Elina Lowensohn, Gilette Barbier, Gerhard Liebmann, Linde Prelog, Heidi Baratta, Hubert Kramar, Helga Illich, Walter Benn, Petra Morze, Osri Toth
Director-screenwriter: Jessica Hausner
Producers: Martin Gschlacht, Philippe Bober, Susanne Marian
Executive producers: Bruno Wagner, Isabell Wiegand
Director of photography: Martin Gschlacht
Production designer: Katharina Woppermann
Editor: Karina Ressler
Costume designer: Tanja Hausner
Music: Matthias Lempert
Sound: Uve Haussig
Sound designers: Out of Silence, Erik Mischijew, Matz Mueller
No rating, 96 minutes
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