Theology at the movies
By James Tomek, Ph.D
Jessica Housner’s 2009 Lourdes, recently on the Turner Classic Movie channel, is a beautiful, yet complex study of the Lourdes phenomenon that gives insight on the powers of the healing sacraments of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. The story concerns a group of pilgrims in different stages of suffering who visit Lourdes to experience the healing waters of Saint Bernadette’s village. Christine, the major character, suffers from multiple sclerosis and is paralyzed from the neck down. Her roommate, an older woman, Frau Hartl, has some kind of facial paralysis. The leader of the group is Cecile, a rather tough talking nun who leads the pilgrims in their tour that includes the grotto, baths and confessions. Many of the scenes are of actual pilgrims. The film also shows the tourist aspects of the town, but is very ambiguous about condemning it, as it also puts us solemnly right in the middle of all the devotions with the beautiful music and chanting of the prayers. Silvie Testud, the popular French actress who plays Christine, accepted the part only on condition that the film not bash Lourdes. Two ladies, who serve like the Greek chorus, comment on miracles and why a God would help some and refuse others. After taking you on a “pilgrimage” through the film Lourdes, I will share some memories of sacred trips to our closer Canadian Shrines.
We see Christine first wheeled into the large cafeteria by Maria, a nurse’s aid dressed like a nun. Soon she is put to bed by the leader, Cecile, and Maria who kneel afterwards in night prayer. Cecile leads the group through their itinerary of visiting the grotto, receiving the general solemn “monstrance” blessing, along with the baths, confession, the Stations of the Cross and final picnic. Christine is not a devout pilgrim. She explains that it is only the wish to leave her assisted living place to have varied cultural experiences. In her confession, she admits not having sympathy for her fellow sufferers. She is jealous when her nurse Maria flirts with Kuno, a military helper, at the shrine from the order of Malta. When she is later cured, the two “chorus” ladies doubt her merit. Christine’s roommate, an older lady with facial paralysis, is in direct opposition to Christine devotion-wise. She takes care of Christine when Maria neglects her duties. She is sincere as we witness her praying in front of the primary statue of Mary.
Is the film somewhat critical of the tourist attitude? I am not sure. When the older lady prays in front of the statue, we see a souvenir sign to the left. However, if we look closer, the souvenir shop is in a mirror reflection and well behind the holy area. The head of the group Cecile seems cold at first. She scolds Christine for excessive pride when her roommate wheels her closer to the priest giving the solemn blessing. However, Cecile also devoutly prays for her after she has put Christine to bed. In the end, she faints, and we see that she is suffering from a cancer as her head reflects the ravishes of chemotherapy. I am reminded of the 1943 film, The Song of Bernadette, when an older nun, who had been criticizing Bernadette, changes her view when she sees the condition of her legs. I change my mind and see Cecile as a saint who leads hurting people to places of prayer and possible healings.
How do we look at this movie with respect to miracles? There is one young girl who regains a little consciousness, but then falls back into a state of non-being. Christine is cured and dances at the farewell dinner, but falls and needs a wheelchair as the film ends. Is the cure only temporary? Is the place a tourist trap? Why does God help some and not others?
The two chorus ladies pose questions of Divine Justice worthy of Job. The consulting priests assuage the sufferers in that they are all “cured” on some level, if they can accept their condition. I pray that this is true. On one level, I would advise believers to read someone like John Haught, who takes on why a powerful God would allow such misfortune, in his God After Darwin. There are beautiful adult explanations on why we should have faith in a “weak” God.
On another level, this film takes me back to pilgrimage trips that I took with my parents to the Canadian shrines of Saint Anne in Quebec, the Blessed Mother in the Cap de la Madeleine in Three Rivers, and Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. I remember processions and services and also souvenir shops. However, most people were there to pray. Real pilgrims. Some left their crutches, but all were there in devout prayer. I went five times with my parents, who in the last time, bribed me by letting me drive. Two later trips were done on my will power. I took my mother to the shrines the Summer after my father died — a beautiful trip where we reminisced about dad and our religion. The second — a trip through the shrines with my spouse Yvonne. We had a controlled naivete as we visited the shrines, observing the major ceremonies at each place. There were tourists, yes, but the majority of the experiencers were people who prayed and were looking for meaning in life. Sometimes the pilgrimage effect can help you pray when a local church service might become too repetitious. The two trips helped me remember my family and religion.
The film Lourdes is so beautifully presented, with real pilgrims, that it creates the atmosphere of prayer and music, even if one questions at times the commercial aspect. It is a prayer.
(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)