LOURDES, A DOCUMENTARY

Lourdes (2019), a documentary directed by Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai, centers on the small town in southern France where the Virgin Mary appeared to teenager Bernadette Soubiros 160 years ago.

Today over three million people visit Lourdes each year, including 100,000 volunteers and 80,000 malades: the ill and/or  disabled.

The film could have gone two ways. The first would have been to veer saccharine, pious, sentimental. The other—keep in mind that the film-makers’ previous film was about a male porn star—would have been cynical and sneering: Look at these poor deluded souls, actually believing in God.

But the documentary goes in a different direction entirely.

The opening shot is of various hands—some work-worn, some beringed, some wrapped with rosaries–stroking, touching, caressing, the walls and ceiling of the grotto. 

“When you are at Lourdes,” the message runs, “you can show yourself as you are, in all your grandeur and all your weakness.”

The film-makers themselves are not Catholic. But principal writer Sixtine Leon-Dufour had a long history with Lourdes, having served many week-long stints as a caretaker.

In an interview with “Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast,” she observes: “Lourdes is a place for everyone, not just well-mannered religious people. You have firefighters, gypsies, the motorcyclists’ pilgrimage. The prostitutes of Paris make an annual pilgrimage and it’s the highlight of their year.”

“We wanted to go deep into the human condition. At the end of the day we all have the same poverty before the Holy Virgin. We’re all full of hopes, struggling with sadness.”

Operating from the premise that the heart of Lourdes is the relationship between the caregivers and the sick people, the film-makers followed several week-long pilgrimages. In the process, they selected six pilgrims on whom to focus.

Patrick, a young father, has come to Lourdes with his son Jean-Baptiste: an eight-year-old afflicted with a genetic growth disorder. His wife is back home with little Augustin, who suffers from a fatal skin condition. His body is covered with open blisters and sores—in the mouth, in the eyes—the pain of which eludes even morphine. The life expectancy of such children is two years.

How old is Augustin? A pause that contains all the sorrow of the world. “Two,” Patrick replies.

“Patrick is a military guy, very strong, straight,” Leon-Dufour observes. “And he was in so much pain. We didn’t want to use voiceovers. But after we got to know him, we asked, ‘Do you mind saying your prayer out loud?’ He said a big yes. And it changed everything.”  

The prayers of the pilgrims elevate the film to a level that transcends time and place.

Priests’ robes billow. Censers swing. Eyes beseech. Supplicants weep.

An overweight teenage girl, mercilessly bullied at school, is dipped into the healing waters and we could be at the River Jordan during Jesus’ time.

A mother whose son, now 40, had suffered a childhood accident on her watch, feeds him with all the tenderness of the Virgin Mary standing at the foot of the Cross.

The extraordinarily moving original music composed by AVIA (aka Pierre Aviat) enhances the effect. Spare, sustained chords of piano and strings evoke Why, Lord, why? From the halt, the lame, the blind, you “hear”: Why have you abandoned me? You hear: Father, I believe, help thou my unbelief.

Jean-Louis has survived two suicide attempts, the second of which left him confined to a wheelchair and mostly unable to talk. He’s come because faith is his only hope and yet:

“Does your faith make your life easier?”

“No.”

And does it, for any of us? Why do the sick come? They’re not looking for a miracle. In fact, spontaneous healings at Lourdes are extremely rare: since 1858, the Church has acknowledged only 70 of them.

Jean, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s, a fatal wasting disease, muses that he of course hopes for a cure and yet—why should he, of all the sick and suffering people in the world, be healed? Would not such an extraordinary favor be almost…unseemly?

“And if his painkillers stop working, please give us the strength to stay with him until the end.”

“I prayed hard, really hard, that he might at least stand up…But I finally understood that this was my purpose on earth. That I was meant to care for my son.”

“Holy Mary, I get harassed at school…harassed and insulted on the internet”…

“My Lord, protect me. Make me change my life.”

Did Mary really appear to Bernadette all those years ago? Does it really matter?

To watch thousands and thousands of pilgrims, the stars shining overhead and the candles below like more stars, a glowing statue of the Blessed Virgin held aloft, voices raised in “You reign now in heaven, with Jesus our King” is to know that the miracle has already happened. The miracle happened 2000 years ago when they rolled away the stone and found an empty tomb.

13 Replies to “LOURDES, A DOCUMENTARY”

  1. Kathleen Wikman says: Reply

    Looks like it is available to stream, but it’s in French with subtitles. Not good for my husband who doesn’t read fast enough or for my non French speaking blind friend…. darn.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      As I said, Kathleen, they’re hoping to have the film available in video on demand and DVD in August, so keep your eyes peeled. It’s really quite special. Here’s the website.

      1. Kathleen Wikman says: Reply

        I’m still confused…. (not an unusual condition). Won’t the DVD also be in French with subtitles?

        1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

          No, Kathy, I’m saying they hope to have VOD and DVD IN ENGLISH AVAILABLE IN THE UNITED STATES FOR ALL OF US TO WATCH!!! It has been screened all over the US at selected theaters if you look at the website. I watched it in English.

  2. Stephen Sparrow says: Reply

    “Did Mary really appear to Bernadette all those years ago? Does it really matter?”
    Actually Heather it does matter otherwise we’re all victims of a hoax and the same question also applies to that “empty tomb” you mentioned

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      You missed my point, Stephen, which is that we members of the faithful believe and hope whether or not an actual “miracle,” in the sense of a vision or a spontaneous heaeling occurs. The empty tomb was the uber miracle that allows us to proceed with the conviction that the Resurrection occurred, with or without further signs. The thousands of people holding their voices aloft and lifting their voices to Mary is, again, a sign of such incredible hope, faith and love, in spite of ongoing suffering, in spite of the fact that the vast majority, if not all, of the ill pilgrimas are going to go home without being healed in a medical sense…I find that staggeringly moving. I’m sorry you missed the whole spirit of my piece and I urge you to see the film if and when you can–

  3. No I didn’t miss your point Heather – I think we’re just talking past each other. I’ve visited Lourdes. See this link. http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2006/ssparrow_lourdes_jan06.asp

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      How wonderful!

  4. Monique Rivett-Carnac says: Reply

    Great site to visit, thank you Heather. It is well known that Lourdes has had many undocumented healings. Not necessary approved miracles, but when you are afflicted with inner trauma, emotional wounds, depressions, something has simple as constant headaches, lower back pain ext ext. These are some healings that do occur in Lourdes. When a person is afflicted with the harassement of a constant headaches
    and is healed at Lourdes that is a miracle for that person.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Of course! Thanks so much, Monique–

  5. Oh wow! I thought you were talking about this one, Lourdes (2009): https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1405809/
    I liked it but I could have very easily misunderstood it.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      No, this one was made in 2019, released in Europe, and is now looking for an audience in the U.S…Here’s a wonderful review from America: The Jesuit Review.

  6. Michael Demers says: Reply

    Thanks, Heather!

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