One of the most extraordinary insights into the diverse challenges faced by the handful of pilgrims we meet in Lourdes, from documentarians Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai, comes from a wheelchair user named Jean suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). In voiceover interview audio, the man recounts how devastating and disorienting his diagnosis was—for about 10 minutes. After that, he reports being overcome by an “astonishing inner peace” and a sense of not being abandoned that he says has never departed. When it comes to approaching the waters of Lourdes, though, Jean confesses to having trouble asking to be healed—not because he fears hoping for a miracle and not getting it, but because so many suffer so much, and the idea that he should be singled out for healing fills him with discomfort and ambivalence. “Holy Mary,” he prays, “give me the strength to dare to ask to be healed and to return to a more carefree existence.”
So far as I can tell, there has never been a big-screen documentary feature about Lourdes. (I’m aware of a number of small-screen productions, all under an hour.) Despite the title, Lourdes is not strictly about the holy site itself. No authorial voiceover commentary details the story of St. Bernadette Soubirous, her visionary encounters with the Virgin Mary at the Massabielle grotto, or the discovery of the spring. No medical or religious authorities are interviewed to offer perspective on any of the healings associated with the shrine.
An opening title provides the barest context in the form of three statistics: Each year, over 3 million pilgrims travel to Lourdes. Since 1858, some 7,000 “unexplained” recoveries have been reported, of which the Church recognizes just 70 — no more than 1 in 100 — as miraculous. After that, the directors — working with their usual collaborators, cinematographer and editor Alban Teurlai and composer and musician Pierre Aviat — take a fly-on-the-wall approach qualified only by voiceover audio from interviews with the pilgrims themselves and by Aviat’s eclectic score, varying contemplative, ambient keyboards with pipe organ and a capella choral compositions overtly evoking sacred music.
Demaizière and Teurlai are nonbelievers, but their observational method is respectful and open-minded. The film is structured as a week-long pilgrimage: Moody early images depict the shrine at night, empty, awaiting the arrival of pilgrims. Some of these we meet at home, preparing for their trip, or en route on train cars designed to accommodate disabled travelers. The film follows the pilgrims to the grotto, to Mass, and finally to the baths filled with water from the grotto spring.
It’s the pilgrims themselves — their suffering, their motivations, their experiences — that the filmmakers care about. What is it they seek? What do they find? What does this journey mean to them, and what does it actually consist of? To these questions there are as many answers as there are pilgrims.
Ambiguously contrasting with Jean’s serene sense of sustaining faith, another wheelchair-bound pilgrim named Jean-Louis, whose loss of mobility and speech are the result of a pair of suicide attempts following an unhappy love affair, is questioned by a bearded Dominican priest regarding what his faith and his many visits to Lourdes over the last 15 years mean to him. Does faith make Jean-Louis’ life easier? Does it change his life? The blunt negativity of his laconic answers — spelled out by clumsy efforts to point to letters on an alphabet sheet — startle the young priest, who finally asks whether his faith brings him anything at all. At last Jean-Louis manages the reassuring answer the priest wants — but what is it that Jean-Louis’ faith gives him? Whatever the answer, we never hear it.
The most wrenching pilgrimages involve parents and children. The filmmakers closely follow the journey of a military father, Patrick, who joins a military pilgrimage with his young son Jean-Baptiste. Jean-Baptiste takes thyroid medicine for a rare genetic disorder called Prader–Willi syndrome — but the more serious concern is his baby brother Augustin, who is much more seriously ill with another rare condition called epidermolysis bullosa. Augustin is too fragile to make the pilgrimage, so he stays home with Patrick’s wife while Jean-Baptiste travels to Lourdes on his brother’s behalf, clutching the younger boy’s teddy bear as a kind of surrogate. At Massabielle, where pilgrims reverence the rock wall of the grotto by touching it, Jean-Baptiste presses his brother’s bear to the face of the rock.
The first spoken words we hear are the anguished prayer of Isidore, a male prostitute with gender dysphoria. Isidore has come to Lourdes as part of a “Magdalene” pilgrimage of prostitutes organized by a priest who collects them via church van at Paris’ Bois de Boulogne park where they work. (Painted on the side of the van are the words “Mary looked at me as a person” — a message taken from St. Bernadette’s account of her encounters with the Blessed Virgin.) The priest says that after praying at the grotto many of the women “stop turning tricks.” Isidore has been coming to Lourdes for years; this year he is privileged to act as an altar server at a Mass at the grotto itself.
The priests and religious we encounter seem decent and compassionate, though the most visible manifestations of charity may come from the army of healthcare workers and volunteers caring for sometimes seriously disabled pilgrims, laboring to give them dignity and comfort in potentially vulnerable, stressful, physically demanding circumstances. It’s not enough, a head nurse admonishes, to change adult diapers and tend to bare physical needs, or even to keep pilgrims clothed and covered. They should be pampered, lotioned, coiffed, and shaved. “Make them look nice for the Holy Virgin!”
The thirst for prodigies and miracles is particularly strong at places like Lourdes, and there is a brief stir as pilgrims quizzically study a smartphone video of the shrine that a middle-aged man emphatically insists captures an apparition of the Virgin Mary witnessed by 300 people on the previous evening. “That’s solid proof!” someone declares, while another says doubtfully, “She looks very small.” (Upon closer inspection, the image appears to show a white patch in the sky resembling a human silhouette.) The last word, though, is given to a white-haired, elderly woman who has been coming to the shrine for 60 years. Sometimes, she explains to others, when someone at the grotto claims to see something — the face of Christ, for example — others so want to believe that they convince themselves that they can see it too. When she says that after her pilgrimage she will go home with a light heart, having “seen Mary and touched the rock,” she articulates a faith that does not seek validation in smartphone videos.
Teurlai’s camera, like the smartphone, captures nothing overtly miraculous. The rocky face of the grotto in the opening images, with pilgrim hands reverently pressed against it, is no different from rocky formations the world over. The water in the baths is no different, visibly or even chemically, from water anywhere else. Is the face of Christ visible in this film? After this cinematic pilgrimage, have we seen the Virgin? As with the pilgrims themselves, that may depend on whether we have eyes to see.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.