Let's start with that curious opening shot: a steady downward ceiling-level gaze at a cafeteria filling up with people needing sustenance. Do we call it a God's-eye view? Perhaps, but only if we also can allow that God might lurk sometimes very much on ground level, hiding around corners, peeking at our protagonist, deciding what to do.
Such is the slyly playful mystery of Lourdes, in which Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner declares her fascination with adjustable perspective. In fact, there's a lot of gazing going on here: patient, scrutinizing, coveting, desiring, distrusting, enraptured.
Hausner's setting, of course, is the rural French commune to which millions annually trek in hopes that the Virgin Mary might join them and perform some healing miracles. Here, the extraordinarily expressive Sylvie Testud plays a woman of indeterminate age, wheelchair-bound by multiple sclerosis, who subjects herself to various potentially transformative religious ceremonies. "It's a bit touristy, but that's how every pilgrimage is," she says, summing up the movie's understatedly receptive tone. Not long thereafter, her symptoms improve. Possibilities emerge. "Why me?" she'll be saying later, in an address to curious onlookers. "I hope to be the right person."
Her progress could be called predictable, but that's why it's so interesting to watch. It demonstrates all the ways in which the mechanics of pilgrimage might be inflected. Distinctions between piety and desperation, between resignation and gratitude, seem all too easily dissolved -- or determined ultimately by the beholder's eye.
Neither dogmatic nor particularly dogma-phobic, Lourdes has a cool, casual way of simply suggesting possibilities. Hausner understands how audience expectations about movie plot turns can operate like a secular version of faith in miracles. It's not too far fetched to call her film a blessing.
Lourdes opens Friday at the Roxie in San Francisco and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For tickets and information, visit sfgate.com