Is God all-powerful or all-good? It’s a question posed to Father Nigl (Gerhard Liebmann) who is traveling with a group of ailing and disabled people at their pilgrimage in Lourdes, France. As the classic theological dilemma goes: if God is all powerful, and all good, why is their pain and suffering in the world? Father Nigl is posed a question that assumes God must be one or the other, because the evidence in front of this man suggests that God cannot be both.
Father Nigl’s answer is unsatisfactory, saying God is both because he heals the real pain of the human soul, cutting out physical pain from the considerations. Likewise, when Frau Hartl (Gilette Barbier) approaches Father Nigl and asks him how she can be healed, he says she must first allow God to heal her soul before her body can receive healing. Therefore, the physical ailment is a reflection of the deeper problems of the soul.
In contrast to Father Nigl’s ambiguous and introspective approach the pain, head nurse Cécile (Elina Löwensohn) explains that the process of pain serves as a way for individuals to edify and uplift the Church, citing from the letters of Paul. It’s presented as a brutally cold perspective, detached from the need for empathy and care needed by those suffering, hoping for a miracle to heal them.
As the ailed attend mass and bathe at the pools at The Grotto of Massabielle, they wait for the moment of healing. Some have become jaded, but continue to go through the motions, perhaps more out of comfort of the familiar than anything else, others just seem happy to be able to get out in the world, a few still hope desperately.
The one that becomes hard to categorize is Christine (Sylvie Testud), a beautiful young woman paralyzed from the waist down. It’s unclear whether she believes she can be healed or is just another tourist. She’s aided by Maria (Léa Seydoux), a young woman who is more interested in flirting with the male aids than in dedicating herself to care for Christine. And when both women fall for the same man, Kuno (Bruno Todeschini), envy and resentment begins to fill the air.
This awkward love triangle highlights the human problem of pain. Individuals too caught up in their own affairs to be considerate or sympathetic of the people around them in their poor conditions. Even fellow comrades of pain and disability often end up abusing and using one another. When Frau Hartl begins to take an interest in caring for Christine in Maria’s absence, it’s because of the attention and satisfaction it brings her. As one tactless observer remarks, Hartl needs Christine.
While Lourdes doesn’t attempt to bring closure to the question of pain, it poses a tangentially interesting question: who is worthy of being relieved of their pain? Everyone seems to be seeking healing, but do those who experience such reinvigorating and life revitalizing healings do so because they were more worthy than others? Did they have more faith? Was their ailment more urgent than others? Did they do something the others didn’t?
For people who think they deserved such healing, the film instead ponders whether or not they were actually worthy to receive such a miracle when so many around them suffer even more. Lourdes doesn’t have an easy out, in fact, it makes certain to cast even more ambivalence and complication on top of these questions. It never leads the audience on to a particular answer, but it does its best to make sure people are asking the right questions.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing