Surprise hit ‘Lourdes’ documentary, coming to U.S. theaters, captures miracles of a different sort

lourdes The documentary "Lourdes," showing in theaters on Feb. 8 and 9, follows the experiences of sick and disabled pilgrims who often seek consolation rather than cures. | Bosco Films

The French documentary film “Lourdes” will be shown in 700 theaters in the U.S., for a special two-day screening, on Feb. 8 (in French with English subtitles) and Feb. 9 (in Spanish with English subtitles).

The film presents a unique and affecting view of the Catholic pilgrimage site as seen through the eyes of several of the sick pilgrims and their caregivers.

A surprise hit in France among critics and audiences, the award-winning documentary follows several sick and disabled pilgrims who travel to Lourdes in search of consolation, if not miracles, at the Marian shrine in the French Pyrenees. It was there on Feb. 11, 1858, that 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous witnessed the first of 18 apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

The filmmakers received unprecedented access to the sacred site from the Catholic Church. The sick and disabled pilgrims are seen praying at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, worshipping at the grotto where the visions took place, being immersed in the baths, and perhaps most affectingly, being cared for and assisted by volunteers or “hospitaliers.”

The U.S. tour follows the film’s debut in France, where in 2020 it was nominated for best documentary at the Cesar Awards. Tickets for the Feb. 8 and 9 showings can be purchased online at Fathom Events or at participating theater box offices. 

As many as 6 million people visit Lourdes each year to pray and to touch, bathe in and drink from the spring water that flows under the grotto where the apparitions of the Virgin first took place. More than 7,000 cures have been attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes, with 70 officially recognized by the Catholic Church. A 15-minute-long “bonus” film following the presentation of the movie, distributed by Spain’s Bosco Films, features a Catholic physician discussing the miraculous cures attributed to Lourdes.

The movie “Lourdes,” however, is not exactly a movie about miracles. Audiences eager to be blown away by visible proof of the existence of a loving God who answers prayers may at first be disappointed when they realize it is not that kind of movie. What follows are miracles of a different sort: the gift of faith that makes possible peace and even joy through suffering, and the exercise of loving one’s neighbor in charity and compassion.

“Lourdes” is not always easy to watch — not only because it’s uncomfortable to see suffering at such close range, but also because the unfamiliarity with that feeling is an indication that one tends to go through life avoiding being exposed to it.

A despondent teenage girl has come on an annual pilgrimage with her unemployed father to bathe in Lourdes’ spring water. Her father hopes to cure her of the cysts forming in her arm, but she prays before the statue of the Virgin Mary for relief from the kids who bully her at school.

A mother and father travel by bus with their 40-year-old son who can’t stand or feed himself, as his mother confesses that she still blames herself for the accident that changed their lives forever.

A father and his son, who himself is sick, seek healing for a terminally ill younger brother suffering from a painful skin condition. The faith of the two is palpable as is that of the boys’ mother, who manages to radiate joy as she sees them off.

A man afflicted in the last stages of ALS explains that he is grateful for the gift of peace he feels he has been given.

A group of prostitutes from Paris makes a solemn annual “Magdalena” pilgrimage to Lourdes in the company of a Catholic priest who gently counsels one to consider giving up his way of life.

Another man communicates by pointing to letters on a sheet of paper. The wry, intelligent look on his face seems to invite people to engage in conversation with him. We later learn that he has attempted suicide twice.

The inspiration for the movie came from its writer, veteran journalist Sixtine Léon-Dufour, who first went to Lourdes as a volunteer, very reluctantly, on the occasion of her mother-in-law’s 70th birthday. Once there, she was profoundly moved by the work, bathing, dressing, feeding, and talking to the pilgrims, and now returns with her family every year.

When she is volunteering at Lourdes, she told CNA that she is struck by the faith of the pilgrims, who, she said, come for consolation more than for a cure.

“What they all say is that when you go to the grotto and you spend some time praying — or not — at the feet of this statue of the Virgin Mary, you find peace, a real peace,” she said.

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While Léon-Dufour is Catholic, the film’s directors, Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai, are nonbelievers, she said.

In the months they spent interviewing people to feature in the movie, she said, the directors would always ask the same question: “You’re very Catholic, you pray a lot. Tell me, you are absolutely looking for a miracle, right?”

“And each time all the people you saw in the documentary, they said, ‘No, no!”

“No matter how hard I tried to explain that people come to Lourdes not especially looking for a miracle they would not understand that it was much more about faith and being together to find some comfort,” she said.

And despite the directors’ initial confusion and purported lack of faith, they managed to capture traces of the divine in the interactions between the sick and the volunteers who assist them. The word “miracle” comes from the Latin miraculum or “thing of wonder,” which perfectly describes these encounters.

The film shows the sick and disabled pilgrims light up when they are with others who treat them with love and respect. Volunteer nurses are seen engaging with their charges, talking to them, and drawing them out. For some pilgrims, it is clear that just being touched or held as they are bathed and dressed delights them.

For other sick pilgrims, it is the conversation that brings them joy. A sad-looking woman in her 90s appears completely transformed after talking with a young volunteer who engages with her as she would a friend. At first quiet and guarded, the encounter leaves the woman smiling, telling stories, and even singing.

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A volunteer at Lourdes pilgrims sharing a laugh with a pilgrim. Bosco Films
A volunteer at Lourdes pilgrims sharing a laugh with a pilgrim. Bosco Films

The young faith-filled boy who is at Lourdes to pray for his sick brother seems to know what these pilgrims need. He makes a habit of reaching out to hold the hands of those who seem barricaded in their wheelchairs, eliciting shy smiles on their faces.

When a disabled woman begins to thrash and cry and it’s explained to the group of volunteers with her that she is sad to be leaving Lourdes, the young women soon have tears rolling down their cheeks.

Léon-Dufour told CNA that she thinks the sick and disabled find Lourdes a respite from what can be a cruel world.

“To be able to be in that place without any judgment from society because you are surrounded by disabled people, sick people. The poor, ‘the invisibles,’ are on the front stage, which doesn’t happen in our real lives. Here in Lourdes, you don’t have any judgment. So I think that the first cure you can get is that you don’t have ‘funny eyes’ on you.”

“And oh, all the people you will find on your way! Either they’re as sick as you or as poor as you. Either. They’re here just to help you,” she said.

The volunteers, many of whom are college students, usually stay for one week and receive training upon arriving at one of the welcome centers. The film shows a group of new volunteers being instructed on how to bathe their patients, how often to change their urinary incontinence pads, and the importance of drying them off completely. Many of the female volunteers wear nurses’ uniforms, complete with starched caps, a tradition that dates back to the 19th century, Léon-Dufour said.

“It was a matter of hygiene, and it was also because you used to have a lot of people, and especially women, from the French aristocracy [volunteering]. They didn’t want to have any difference, between the, let’s say the farmer and the aristocrats, so we kept these uniforms,” she said.

Lourdes, she said, is one of “the rarest places in the world,” because the volunteer nurses continue to come from all walks of life as do the pilgrims, she said.

“You have to give the showers, you have to dress the people, you have to entertain them, etc. And so, it’s one of the places in the world where you will see a very successful CEO giving a shower to, let’s say, a maid. And it’s great sometimes to have this kind of reminder, you know?” she said.

In making a movie about Lourdes, Léon-Dufour hoped to share with others something she discovered as a reluctant volunteer years ago.

“It’s about giving back. Of course, you can give back everywhere — you can give back when you see a homeless person or whatever, but I think that you receive so much joy spending one week [at Lourdes],” she said. “I can assure you that that is very, very rewarding. The thing is that you keep going back because you receive much more.”

Watch the trailer here:

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