The characters are scripted, but the places are real, and part of the film’s thrill, especially when coupled with Hausner’s often inscrutable attitude towards the place, is to watch her drama unfolding in such a location, both creepy and magical, dour and uplifting. Hausner has been given a privilege and she uses it wisely.
Gradually, though, the drama tightens around Christine, whom we observe at closer quarters than the others. She is frail, pretty and blonde; she’s also living with multiple sclerosis and is unable to move her body below the neck. Christine’s religious beliefs are unclear (‘I prefer the cultural trips,’ she says) but the pilgrimage is having a strange effect on her and soon she’s the focus of everyone’s attention. Are we witnessing a miracle? Is Christine manipulating the situation? Is she really ill? And are we cruel even to entertain that last thought?
The beauty of Hausner’s film is that just when you think she’s going to take a sneering swipe at Lourdes, its tacky trinkets and deluded visitors, the film takes a much less easy – and more inquiring – turn. Like Haneke, Hausner is more comfortable opening a debate than closing it. Some things are clear, though. Her photography is exquisite, evoking religious icons, and her mastery of directing such a group of actors at this exceptional location allows the film to maintain a strong ensemble feel while never losing sight of the mysterious story at its core. There’s also a delicious streak of black humour that runs through the film and stops it from becoming too pious or maudlin. The result is a provocative and surprising pleasure that may persuade even the most hardened rationalists to reconsider what religion means as a sanctity to those who have few other choices in life.