Sunday, September 23, 2012

Grotto of Forgotten Dreams: Lourdes (2009) ✭✭✭✭

Lourdes offers a detached and unadorned look at the nature of religious mysticism, leaving plenty of room for individual interpretation. The story details a tour group pilgrimage to the legendary healing site, centering on a 40-ish woman severely afflicted with MS named Christine (Sylvie Testud) and her young volunteer caregiver Maria (Léa Seydoux). The film’s brilliant opening sequence establishes Christine as one of many aspirants who have traveled to Lourdes in a search of miraculous remedies for maladies both real and imagined. What transpires over the following week is an eccentric mixture of the commercial with the celestial, the tacky with the transcendent.

Lourdes’ narrative builds at the measured, unhurried pace of a religious ritual, and generates a quiet, meditative momentum. As the tourists/pilgrims take part in proscribed programs designed to optimize the Lourdes experience, the proceedings seem more like cruise ship activities than a path to the divine. Humanist vs. Christian subtext is reinforced by director Jessica Hausner in a number of oblique and subtle ways, including spectral sounds that graft liturgical chants and prayers with the white noise of nature, rendering a primordial music of the spheres. This conflict will come to a head in the film’s final act, when a miraculous healing is greeted with envy and cynicism by even the most devout participants, germinating their previously dormant seeds of doubt.

Testud’s unique pixie-dust physicality is put to good use in this role; her gingersnap expressions perfectly evoke a lively spirit trapped in a damaged, useless body. As her character’s name suggests, Seydoux serves as a symbolic construct; her behavior perhaps offering a scientific explanation for New Testament phenomena. Fittingly, her importance to the story decreases as hope is replaced by skepticism, yet she remains in the background, underused but ready to minister to the needy. To further drive the point, at the Pilgrims’ going away party Seydoux ultimately achieves equal billing with the main entertainment.

Lourdes tells a story of wonder through a lens that manages to be both ironic and objective. Its narrative impartiality paints a clearer picture of faith, more precisely the difficult demands of faith, than any film wrapped in overt sanctimony and self importance. Hausner’s recasting of biblical stories remains true to the source, complete with baffling inconsistencies and divine inspirations. No, Lourdes doesn’t answer the questions of existence. It makes you do it.

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