'Lourdes': Film Review

Courtesy of Hot Docs Festival
Moving and immersive, if not quite a cinematic miracle.

Alban Teurlai and Thierry Demaiziere's documentary delivers a behind-the-scenes portrait of the French town that has become one of the most important sites of religious tourism.

By the end of Alban Teurlai and Thierry Demaiziere's immersive documentary about Lourdes, you'll feel like you've been to the French town that has become one of the most important religious pilgrimage destinations in the world. What you won't feel is that you've learned very much about the subject. Immersive rather than informative, Lourdes, which recently received its world premiere at Hot Docs, proves as frustrating as it is often deeply moving.

Brief informational graphics presented early on inform us that Lourdes receives millions of visitors every year and that some 7,000 recoveries and 70 miracles have been documented. The phenomenon is a result of a French peasant girl, Bernadette, having seen visions of the Virgin Mary there more than 160 years ago. The town is now a major site of religious tourism, as demonstrated by the throngs attending outdoor church services and a glimpse of a very well-stocked gift shop filled with religious trinkets.

The filmmakers focus on several people who travel to Lourdes, at great personal expense and with tremendous difficulty, in search of a miracle. They include a 40-year-old man who has been reduced to a childlike state after a devastating car accident and is being cared for by his elderly parents; a man with ALS  (Lou Gehrig's disease) who says that he has felt inner peace since his fatal diagnosis; a teenage girl with a debilitating skin condition who has been brought there by her father who has scrimped and saved to afford the annual trips; and a father and his little boy who is suffering from an unspecified but apparently terminal condition.

We're also introduced to a seemingly mute middle-aged man who can only communicate by pointing to letters as a result of several failed suicide attempts. He's been coming to Lourdes for 15 years, and is well known to the staff there, including a priest who asks him, "Does your faith make your life easier?" "No," the man answers without hesitation, by pointing to "N" and "O."

The documentary provides a behind-the-scenes portrait of the care provided the more infirm visitors, such as the aides receiving precise instructions as to how to groom and bathe them. "Have them look nice for the Virgin Mary," the head nurse tells them.  

The odds of a miracle are steep, as acknowledged by a woman who says that she's not mad at the Virgin Mary for not curing her. "It's like winning the lottery," she shrugs, pointing to the vast numbers of people who come to Lourdes in desperation. Nonetheless, belief runs strong, as evidenced by a scene in which a group of people excitedly share a cellphone video in which the image of the Virgin Mary seems to appear. Each of the pilgrims profiled in the film is shown bathing in the supposedly healing waters of the grotto where Bernadette first saw her in 1858.

The focus on afflicted individuals provides the film with a strong emotional component, abetted by Pierre Aviat's powerful musical score. For viewers not already familiar with Lourdes and its history, however, the approach may prove less than satisfying. And the doc's climactic depiction of what appears to be a minor miracle feels more than a little manipulative.

Production company: Falabracks
Directors: Alban Teurlai, Thierry Demaiziere
Screenwriters: Alban Teurlai, Thierry Demaiziere, Jeanne Aptekman, Sixtine Leon-Dufour
Producers: Stephanie Schorter, Thierry Demaiziere, Alban Teuriai
Executive producers: Stephanie Schorter, Stephane Celerier, Valerie Garcia
Director of photography-editor: Alban Teurlai
Composer: Pierre Aviat
Venue: Hot Docs

91 minutes