About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.
—W. H. Auden, "Musée des Beaux Arts"
What Auden wrote about suffering and art is also true of art and miracles. To portray a miracle convincingly, an artist needs to understand its human position, how it takes place amid the ordinary business of living. While it's happening, someone walks dully past it, and someone else nearby is eating or opening a window. In most movie miracles, however, the supernatural does not so much interrupt the natural as abolish it. Everyone on screen is paralyzed with awe as the music swells and the heavens part. Everything has changed forever, and everyone knows it. Real miracles are a good deal less demanding; they do not compel the whole world's attention, much less its credence. Something changes, but few notice, and even fewer believe. Meanwhile, everything else goes on as before.
Jessica Hausner, the Austrian director of the new movie Lourdes, understands all this. It's not clear whether Hausner believes in miracles, but she has imagined, clearly and credibly, how one might appear if it did happen.
Christine, a young French woman crippled by an incurable disease, goes on a group pilgrimage to Lourdes. There she does everything a pilgrim is supposed to do. She visits the grotto where Our Lady appeared to Bernadette. She lights candles, prays in the basilica, waits in line with other sick and injured pilgrims to be bathed with Lourdes water. She doesnt seem like an especially pious woman, but she is a woman of faith, who at confession tells a priest she is angry that she and not someone else became sick—angry that she will never again be able to do the things she most enjoyed doing. She knows that some are even worse off, but she finds it impossible to feel sorry for them: she's spent all her pity on herself. The young priest listens attentively and says what he is supposed to say: that the healthy are not always happier than the sick; that suffering, patiently borne, can bring us closer to God; etc. He is as ordinary as she is, not especially holy, a little too careful perhaps, with a professional knack for making a virtue of necessity. He and other official Christians remind Christine that she is really there to pray for a spiritual miracle. To expect any other kind would be selfish and maybe a bit impertinent. (Readers who plans to see Lourdes and don't want to know how it ends should stop reading here.)
Without warning and with little spectacle, Christine begins to recover. Her first movements are so small, quick, and unemphatic that the viewer could easily miss them, or wonder whether they're not a mistake the director failed to catch in the editing room (the actress who plays Christine, the excellent Sylvie Testud, is not disabled). But no: a few nights into the pilgrimage Christine wakes, rises, and walks unsteadily to the bathroom, where she begins brushing her hair, like someone who has never held a brush or looked at herself in a mirror. Neither she nor anyone else knows what to make of it. The priest takes her to the office that certifies miracles. The doctors there do not deny that something extraordinary has happened, but they are hesitant to say it's a miracle, since the disease from which Christine suffers has been known to go into sudden but only temporary remission. Still, we can see that at least one of the doctors thinks this may be the real thing; he congratulates her and urges her to take it slow. In any case, it will be a long time before her recovery can be declared an official miracle.
In no time at all, though, everyone in Lourdes has heard about Christine. Strangers stare at her as she walks by; waiters gather to applaud as she eats an ice cream on a restaurant patio; the rest of her group are thrilled to be so close to something so rare. But it isn't long before some of them begin to ask themselves why a miracle would have happened to her. Surely an extraordinary grace should signal an extraordinary sanctity. One can't earn a miracle of course, but miracles can't just fall into the laps of the undeserving, can they? Now that Christine is no longer disabled, she is unextraordinary in every way. She has no blinding vision to report, and no intention of expressing her gratitude by becoming a nun. She wants to have a career. She wants, and may already have found, romance. Two older women in her group, who arrived in Lourdes wanting nothing more than to see a miracle (gossips go to Lourdes to look for a higher sort of gossip), aren't sure they like it when they're confronted with one. As they see it, Christine is so, well, unmiraculous—in fact, too much like someone who was never sick to begin with.
Watching Lourdes, I kept expecting it to fail in any one of the many ways in which such films usually do fail. When would it turn into a story about the management of group delusion? When would religious hypocrisy take center stage against a backdrop of shabby statues and plastic rosaries? There's a scene of Christine waking up the morning after the day of her recovery. She doesn't move. I thought, Oh no, its going to be one of those it-was-all-a-dream movies. How can they ruin it this way? After a few seconds, though, she gets up, and it becomes clear that the point of her stillness wasn't to scare the viewer, but to capture Christine's own reawakened surprise: she was still afraid it might all be a dream.
Whether or not one believes in miracles, one leaves this film thinking that, yes, this is probably just how one would occur: with this degree of ambiguity; received with this amount of skepticism, jealousy, and indifference. The pilgrimage would end, the group would get back on their bus and go home to get on with their lives, uncertain about what they had seen, but thinking of it less and less as they fell back into their old routines. And what if it didn't last for Christine either? What if her disease eventually returned? Would that mean it hadnt really been a miracle? So the certifiers of miracles would have to conclude, but even the miraculously healed must die one day—if not of the disease that was supposed to have been cured, then of something else. So far as we know, no one has ever been cured of her mortality.