Fearful Symmetries

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15 April, 2010

WFF '10: Lourdes

My Wisconsin Film Festival 2010 began last night with a screening of Lourdes.

The opening shot established the deliberate pace of the film with a view of a dining room. Slowly waitstaff wheel carts in and begin to place food at the tables. Following them are those who are to dine. First comes a man who uses a walker. Then another man zips into the frame in his motorized wheelchair. Soon the room is bustling as the sick and infirm are led to tables by their attendants. All of this activity takes place in a single static shot before a slow zoom begins and moves towards a nurse at the center who announces that the visit to the grotto will be delayed until the following day. The scene had a very Altman-esque feel.

Lourdes centers on Christine, a woman in her late-30s who is afflicted with Multiple Sclerosis. She, like her fellow diners, is a pilgrim has come to Lourdes, a town at the base of the Pyrenees, seeking hope and healing. The sick and infirm began making the trek after a young woman named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a nearby grotto in 1858. A spring at the site supposedly had miraculous healing powers and things snowballed from there as ever more Catholics made the pilgrimage seeking to be free of their illnesses.

Christine has lost the use of her limbs and is tended to by a young woman who also spends a lot of time flirting with one of the men who assists the nurses that care for the pilgrims. Indeed, amidst the search for healing, most of the staff seems more concerned with the opposite sex playing cards, and drinking. The film's humor is very dry as illustrated by scenes of the infirm alternating with those showing the extreme commercial nature of the town. Statues of Mary are for sale everywhere and the lobby of the building where Christine is staying has a large statue with a neon halo above the head.

A routine is begun as the pilgrims eat, venture out to the grotto, go to a blessing, or some other activity, and then back for the night. As we follow Christine, we are introduced to other characters. There's a priest who is unable to satisfactorily answer questions about suffering and why certain people are healed while others are not as well as a male attendant who seeks skeptical of religion and never fails to poke fun at the priest. The head nurse is a Nurse Ratched-like woman who seems to spend most of her time enforcing discipline instead of comforting the ill. And there's also the pair of older women who are the gossip hounds of the group. The holy is contrasted with the profane constantly.

Despite not being particularly religious and making the pilgrimage simply to get away from the Sturm und Drang of her life, Christine appears to have been healed. Now able-bodied, she can make a trek up the mountain. There her own flirtation with the attendant for whom her nurse had eyes comes to fruition and they kiss. Later at the farewell party they are able to dance. But the film ends ambiguously. Christine falls while dancing and retreats to the side to recover herself. Her date is extremely uncomfortable and excuses himself. Christine retreats to her wheelchair, her future unknown as the screen goes black.

Lourdes is a slow movie that utilizes little camera movement and revels in long takes. Christine is very quiet and the film invites the viewer into contemplation as it gives mostly glances and facial expression as clues into her state of mind. Considering all the sick and infirm, the movie never makes a pitch for us to feel sorry for anyone and it manages to never lapse into raw sentimentality by mixing things up with its dry humor and the occasional jab at the hypocrisy of the place.

All in all, a good start to the festival.
|| Palmer, 12:05 PM


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