I used to know some Knights of Malta, which was why initially I wanted to go to see the film called Lourdes. My knightly friends, who lived in Vienna and had business cards printed with 'Knight of Malta' as their occupation, used to go to Lourdes to help disabled pilgrims a couple of times a year. This was just one among a number of things that intrigued me about them (another was whether it was really possible to be a full-time professional Knight of Malta in the modern age). Seeing Lourdes, I decided, would give me a clearer picture of what their trips to the shrine were all about.
The film is the work of Jessica Hausner, an Austrian director who worked as Michael Haneke's assistant and claims Tati as a major influence. The opening scene, a shot of a hotel dining-room being prepared for a meal for a group of pilgrims, certainly resembles something from Tati, but also evokes memories of Fellini's Roma (as does much of the film which, like Roma, has moments of great beauty - most striking perhaps the tableau in which several women anoint Christine, the central character, with holy water, which is reminiscent of a Caravaggio painting - and Fellinesque moments of grotesque comedy, not least the announcement of the prize for 'Best Pilgrim' .)
In the first scene, against a background of ecclesiastical music, we watch from above as waitresses wearing fresh white aprons enter the frame, pushing metal trolleys. In time with each other, they lift chrome bowls from their trolleys and turn to place them at the centre of the cloth-covered tables beside them. They turn back, still synchronised, and continue to the next tables, where they repeat the same gestures, as if engaged in some kind of ritual dance. From our remote corner, we watch their progress. We observe them with the detachment of someone watching fish dart about an aquarium.
The group of people who arrive in the dining-room shortly afterwards are the characters we follow through the rest of the film. As time passes, we learn that they have come to Lourdes for a variety of reasons - some to be cured, some to get out of the house, some to alleviate their loneliness, some out of boredom. They are cared for by members of the Order of Malta, whose motivations are equally varied and not always entirely sweet. We follow them as they visit the Disneyesque chapel at Lourdes, go to the grotto that is the site of the supposed miracle of Lourdes, attend various services of healing and take the waters at the shrine.
I had expected the Catholic church would be the film's main subject. I had imagined the director's central purpose would be to ridicule the whole enterprise that Lourdes represents. To my surprise, while Hausner does nothing to prevent the church from doing its own excellent job of revealing how much of what it offers is essentially tawdry, her focus lies elsewhere. Similarly, although one of the film's achievements is the way it highlights the plight of the disabled, giving us a glimpse of what it means to lose dignity and control, to find yourself utterly vulnerable and at the mercy of others, surrendering to the helplessness of infirmity - and also showing us how even the best-intentioned carers rarely manage to treat those they care for as true equals - this is not her major preoccupation.
Instead, what lies at the heart of the film is a fascination with the overarching absurdity of most human activity, directed as it is by the belief that we can achieve a constant lasting happiness. It is happiness the visitors to Lourdes believe a cure will bring them. They put their faith in God or Jesus or the Virgin - or, in the case of the enigmatic Christine, who becomes fixated with one of the Order of Malta carers, they create their own earthly saviours - and they believe that in return happiness will be theirs. Miracles do happen during the film but by the end the unavoidable conclusion is not that happiness is attainable but rather that life is mysterious, (as are many of the characters, most particularly, in my view, the elderly woman who shares a room with Christine), death is the one absolute reality and happiness is as easy to grasp as smoke. To underline the point, as the final evening of the pilgrimage draws to a close - and with it the film - an ageing singer and the prettiest of the carers belt out a song called 'Felicita', while Christine and her companions subside back into their loneliness.