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Catherine von Ruhland

Directed by Jessica Hausner
Certificate 15, 99 mins,  DVD


The nuns wordlessly setting the tables for the pilgrims at the very start of Lourdes have clearly done it countless times before. To cater for the numbers visiting the shrine everything must remain ordered and regimented. Yet for the disabled and sick who visit the miracle city in search of hope and the possibility of healing, whatever they might experience remains personal and meaningful. That contradiction is at the heart of Hausner's measured focus on MS sufferer Christina (a quietly assertive Sylvie Testud) and the fellow members of her tour group.

The paraplegic Christina is entirely dependent on others: we are shown the personalities and concerns of her various care-givers through the way they treat her. The serious, conscientious and steely head nun, Cecile tucks up Christina's unresponsive body then prays over her before lights out, but cannot admit her own vulnerability in spite or because of her faith. Her attitude is contrasted with the giggly flightiness of the uniformed teenage girls who volunteer to help out but are more interested in the handsome young men of the Order of Malta.The guests are there to be served but that is as far as it goes - Christina tries to befriend a male official she recognises from a previous pilgrimage but his response is polite rather than being wholly engaged. For all the show of Christian love, there remains a definite demarcation line between those who are sick and those who care for them.  

Yet even as Christina is being wheeled around by a lonely roommate who has taken it upon herself to make the young woman her charge, she still retains an almost wordless air of self-possession. And when one morning she gets up from her bed and walks, the neat assumptions of the tour group are ripped asunder.  Why her, for one thing?

Hausner cut her teeth as a script-girl on Michael Haneke's Funny Games and she shares something of his detached, almost clinical approach. She casts a darkly humorous eye over the commercialisation of Lourdes, and dismisses it as 'an adult fairytale'. 'Its enduring reputation reveals how much every one of us hopes to get away from decay and death, how strongly people cling to the hope that God might be almighty and good and will instill justice and sense into life,' she explained in a recent interview. 'The only problem is that as far as I can see, he seems to have no intention of interfering at all.'  The rain falls on the just and the unjust.  

Ironically, Hausner's ambivalence towards faith, presumably forged in the post-Catholic Austria captured so succinctly in Gotz Spielmann's recent thriller, Revanche, leads her to her ponder in Lourdes the very questions about fate and fairness that challenge believers too.

Catherine von Ruhland