VINCE POWELL is more famous as a script writer for the Carry On films than as a maker of documentaries. So there was a certain amount of panic in Westminster Cathedral when the powers that be heard he planned to make a film about Lourdes. Could the church be assured that the director wouldn't have comedy priests leaping out from behind the Stations of the Cross just to spice things up?
Fortunately such fears were unfounded. Powell, Jim Bowie and his friends have produced a film that is clear, historically interesting, and definitely not funny. If you want to know what to expect when you arrive at Lourdes, this film — at ninety minutes — certainly fills you in.
One thing that impressed me was the choreography. Nearly five million people a year visit the shrine, so it is important that each one knows where he or she should be. As with a blockbuster movie, vast numbers of people are directed skilfully from one site to the next. The faithful, many of them disabled, are helped along in these manoeuvres by volunteers called Red Caps, who look after the sick and needy as well as the inevitably lost and confused. Somewhere in this is a powerful metaphor for the way in which believers are guided by their faith, with the assistance of the Church. After all, it's quite a leap for a sick person to travel and place the responsibility for his or her wellbeing on strangers. There is something touching about such trust. Just as there is something fascinating about the single-minded focus and coherence of so many people. Surely no other place on earth can contain so many disparate human beings. unified and made equal by their arrival in one town. Lourdes is no mere holiday destination. Nobody goes there without purpose. For a time at least the pilgrims' attention is not on their own gratification — and this applies to everybody, able-bodied or not — but on something greater than themselves, in which they clearly have total belief.
The presenter at the beginning of the film, Fr Vladimir Felzman, gets into his stride quite soon, and his enthusiasm for the story of Bernadette is contagious. In a way that brings this peasant girl from the 1850s closer to home. he describes her bemusement and childish misunderstanding of the momentous events taking place in her life. Father Vladimir Felzman has a warmth that draws you into the story, but I wish we had been told more about the miracle itself and the research into its authenticity. What, for example, did the locals at the time make of Bernadette? Perhaps the intention was not to make a movie about Bernadette — something that was done by the Oscar-winning Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette — but to illustrate what Lourdes is about and even encourage us to visit it. The fact is that spectacle is less interesting than the story of an individual. In any piece of art it is the subtlety of approach that intrigues and fascinates. For me, Bernadette's story would be more moving than the spectacle of Lourdes. Similarly the story of one of the many pilgrims would have given the film poignancy.
This is not to say that I see the film as an advert that doesn't quite come off or that ceremony is not important. Where would the Church be without it? The point of ceremony, it seems to me — torchlight processions and so on — is that they are live. Therein lies their strength and reason. So I don't think that the makers of this. film would disagree if I said that the real feeling of a pilgrimage to Lourdes has to be experienced in person.
Journey to Lourdes ,wir h an introduction by Cardinal Hume, is priced f15, with 12 going to the Westminster Diocescui fiord to, help sick and disabled people go to Lourdes. Call 0181 614 2407 for further details.