An ironic parable that both is and isn’t about faith, Lourdes might make a good “Why me?” double feature with A Serious Man. As in, why, on a group pilgrimage, is wheelchair-bound Christine (Sylvie Testud) miraculously healed, and not someone else? Neither the most pious nor the most pitiful, and inarticulate about her beliefs, she views the trip as a chance to travel, and the religious event as a plus in winning the attentions of a kind, dashing officer.
Opening Playtime-style with a cafeteria gradually filling up with the sick and disabled and their red-uniformed caretakers, Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner depicts a culture of petitioners whose routines and gossip are more redolent of bargain hunters than believers. Permitted to shoot at Lourdes, she emphasizes receiving lines and prep rooms, human-scale needs and desires, over grand architecture or heavenly shafts of light. Buffered by a carefully maintained tone, Lourdes plugs divine mystery into the chatter of earthbound concerns: a hot volunteer (Léa Seydoux) miffed over losing her guy, or Christine’s frumpy companion feeling like a dog left behind when no longer needed.
Despite the challenge to straight-faced orthodoxy, the film, like Satyajit Ray’s Devi, is ultimately about a young woman to whom something extraordinary happens. Far from being hands-off, Hausner is a little too schematic, particularly when it comes to the fate of the chief caretaker (Elisa Löwensohn), but her thought experiment is an emotionally potent one.