'Lourdes': When miracles work, trouble follows 

The week’s top contender for anti-“Expendables” distinction, “Lourdes” is a bone-dry, anthropologically observant and slyly comic drama about faith, the miraculous, the physical and psychological effects of reputed miracles, and the dynamics of human needs that continue to impel people to look for a bolt from the firmament to ease their pain.

With her docu-realist tone and lack of a concretely conveyed purpose, Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner (working in French) hasn’t made an easy-access film. But this movie succeeds adequately as a narrative drama and triumphs as both a human-nature story and a fly-on-the-wall-style subcultural canvas.

In Lourdes, the town in France associated with miracle cures and healing, we follow a tour group. Pilgrims include Christine (Sylvie Testud), a wide-eyed, pleasant, youngish woman in a wheelchair.

Initially, the action consists mostly of routine rituals and tour stops. Christine visits the grotto, where, assisted by caregiver Maria (Lea Seydoux), her paralyzed, curled hand touches the rock. In the baths, Christine receives a pouring of grotto water. Chitchat and minidramas – Christine flirts with volunteer Kuno (Bruno Todeschini); organizer Cecile (Elina Lowensohn), despite her skepticism about miracles, seeks one – occur.

Eventually, Christine herself experiences something miraculous, and the reactions of believers and skeptics alike underscore the injustice involved regarding who suffers in life.

Why Christine, who, as indicated in Hausman’s most amusing material, is neither devout nor the epitome of virtue, has received deliverance is a mystery that frustrates the pilgrims.

Does God, as the site priest (Gerhard Liebmann) believes, truly have reasons for such seeming hiccups? Is Christine’s transformation, as a doctor suggests, a temporary phenomenon, explainable medically? Why would a supposedly good, powerful God let anybody remain in pain?

Hausner is more concerned with questions than revelations, and her deliberate vagueness, while effective in terms of the religious material, extends to the emotions of her characters, limiting dramatic impact.

But this is overall a consistently intriguing and sometimes captivating film that satisfies the grey matter, tickles darker funny bones, and melds small and big pictures exquisitely.

Hausner’s picture of Lourdes as a big-money universe filled with everything from candle-carrying pilgrims to shops selling kitschy Virgin Mary souvenirs is fascinating.

Also notable is Hausner’s depiction of the shabbier facets of human feeling. While publicly applauding Christine’s miracle, some pilgrims exude jealousy.

Another reason to see this film is Testud (credits include the current “Vengeance”), who, sometimes with little more than her eyes, conveys a gold mine while maintaining the mystery Hausman desires.

MOVIE REVIEW

Lourdes

Three stars

Starring Sylvie Testud, Elina Lowensohn, Bruno Todeschini, Gerhard Liebmann
Written and directed by Jessica Hausner
Not rated
Running time 1 hour 39 minutes

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