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Cannes and Lourdes of the ring

Religion and film with a French twist

This year’s Cannes opener, Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education,” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” serve as timely reminders that film and religion can intersect with startling results.

But in real life, the worlds of religion and film are not the same, as I was reminded when I visited Lourdes and Cannes within 24 hours.

Cannes and Lourdes: Both are sites of pilgrimages and both names evoke magical, mystical responses. But don’t confuse the two.

For one thing, in Lourdes, there are no cell phones, no smoking, no tuxedos and no poodles.

In Cannes, you don’t see many nuns.

These are not rules. It’s just that the cities attract different types of pilgrims, with dissimilar goals and lifestyles. But the two have become meccas for those who believe in miracles. Pilgrims arrive in both towns hoping that their lives will improve. Their faith and hope are so sincere, you can’t laugh.

However, each town has given rise to excesses, and you can laugh at those.

For those who have forgotten the story of Lourdes (or who are pagans and never heard it), the Blessed Virgin first appeared in a grotto to schoolgirl Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 and spoke about penance and forgiveness. She also pointed to a spot in the ground where a spring would be found, which over the years has provided waters with apparent healing powers.

All right, it doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of story that would interest moviemaker Mel. But millions have flocked to the place, hoping for a miracle like the ones that that have been recorded.

After an eight-hour drive from Cannes, I wandered around Lourdes and got a sudden inspiration.

So I jauntily returned to the hotel, smiled at the two men behind the desk and asked, “Is it possible for you to arrange a massage?” One looked stricken and stared at the floor; the other took a sharp intake of air. “We have people who can ease pain,” he said slowly, “but they are generally for people who really need it.”

Apparently my question was the Lourdes equivalent of saying “I forgot my skateboard. You guys have a wheelchair I can borrow?”

Clearly I was blurring the lines between two very distinct cities. But there are similarities:

  • Businesses at both locales reflect the population’s preoccupations. In Cannes, there are the Hotel Festival, the Pharmacie du Festival, the Bookstore du Cinema. Lourdes has the souvenir stand of the Sacred Heart, the Vatican Garage and the liquor store of the Immaculate Conception.

  • Both have rituals: Cannes has the glamorous red-carpet Official screening, and Lourdes offers the somber Procession Mariale (AKA the Processional of the Invalids).

  • Both have satellite events to enhance the main attraction. Cannes has film sidebars (a salute to Brazilian cinema, Directors Fortnight, Un Certain Regard). Lourdes has wax museums, Le Petit Lourdes (the town in miniature) and a theater with continuous showings of films about Bernadette.

In elementary school, I was taught by an order of French nuns, and the very word “Lourdes” held the same powerful sway as “pope,” “rosary” and “eternal damnation.” Happily brainwashed, I vowed to someday visit.

As a cynical teenager, I met a traveler who said, “Oh, it’s horribly tacky. It’s filled with souvenir stands that sell plastic bottles in the shape of the Blessed Virgin, with a screw-top crown on her head.” Naturally, this only enflamed my desire.

When I was an adult, someone said, “All those people, so eager to be cured — it’s depressing.”

So I went to Lourdes expecting to be enlightened, amused and heartbroken. I wasn’t disappointed.

Similarly, the name “Cannes” in my youth conjured up images of Anita Ekberg waving from the Palais, topless starlets on the beach, and cineastes stroking their chins as they savored the latest work of Federico Fellini. It, too, surpassed expectations. As for restaurants, Cannes easily has the edge. Hands-down, the worst meal I’ve ever had in France was in Lourdes (how can grilled fish be so greasy?) But then, you don’t go to pilgrimage sites expecting fine dining.

Other than that, comparisons are limited.

Both places are fueled by hope — In one case, it’s artistic or financial hope; in the other, it’s spiritual or physical.

In Lourdes, the emotions are raw. The Procession of the Invalids seems like a Monty Python notion, but it’s devastating to see hundreds of people in wheelchairs, smiling optimistically.

The hopefuls in Cannes may be just as vulnerable, but the smiles are for the camera; if there are tears, they’re shed behind closed doors. Of course religious people may feel it’s disrespectful to compare a crass center of commerce — shameless hoopla, stunts and money-changing — to a religious site.

But, for better or for worse, pop culture is a religion for many. In magazines, TV news shows and entertainment reports, celebs have become like the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece: We learn from their behavior (sometimes they are capricious, like Janet Jackson; sometimes they are steadfast, like Tom Hanks). Films tell us stories that are little morality tales; they give us hope. A prop from a film or a Hollywood autograph is a religious relic.

Both towns are amazing, in very different ways. After Cannes, I highly recommend a trip to Lourdes. But don’t order the fish — and please, don’t even think about asking for a massage.

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