Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai start their documentary with imagery that is as elemental as it gets. A stone wall, slate gray, its surface sheathed, it seems, in clear water. Then, human hands, some gnarled with age, others smooth and childlike, touch the wall, sometimes with fingertips, sometimes palms.
This wall is at the shrine of Lourdes, in the French Pyrenees, where in 1858 a young woman saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary and discovered a spring of reputedly curative water. The town is now host, between the months of March and October, to pilgrimages by thousands of people seeking physical and spiritual healing, and their families. The movie takes an intimate look at a few who visited the shrine of Lourdes in 2017.
There’s a lot heartbreak to be seen here. A teenage girl with a skin condition, accompanied by her father, seems just as riven by the school mockery she endures as by her ailment itself. A male prostitute, whose tortured musings we hear in voice-over, assists some priests in preparing communion. A devoted mother transports her adult son, who had a brain injury in a road accident, “to see the Virgin,” as he puts it. One very young child, too sick to even travel, is prayed for by his father and brother.
The movie also shows the volunteers and health care workers who look after the pilgrims during the devotional season. The movie allows these figures moments of frankness — there’s much about their jobs that’s tiring and unappetizing — but the viewer will be mostly impressed by their compassion.
What do the pilgrims want? By this late date in the history of the place, few expect a cure. “There aren’t that many miracles, if you think about it,” Lydie, the aforementioned mother, admits. They seek the possibility of miracles — and hope and fellowship and understanding.
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. In theaters.