The Miracle Club

Director: Thaddeus O’Sullivan
Starring: Laura Linney, Maggie Smith, Kathy Bates, Agnes O’Casey, Mark O’Halloran, Mark McKenna, Eric D Smith, Stephen Rea, Niall Buggy
Distributor: Transmission Films
Runtime: 91 mins. Reviewed in Aug 2023
Reviewer: Fr Peter Malone msc
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mild themes and coarse language

The women of Ballyfermot have a tantalising dream – to taste freedom and escape the gauntlet of domestic life by winning a pilgrimage to the sacred French town of Lourdes.

This is an Irish tale set in 1967 Dublin. As the title word ‘miracles’ indicates, there is more than a Catholic tone to this drama with touches of comedy. And, it will play more extensively around the world because of the star power of its cast. Smith, in her late 80s, is Lily, a Dublin housewife (a long way from Downton Abbey), Bates, an Oscar winner for Misery, is Eileen, while the always versatile Linney is Chrissie. They are supported by an Irish cast led by Rea as Eileen’s husband.

1967, in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, sees the beginning of many changes in the Catholic Church, and the dialogue with what were called ‘the signs of the times’.

At the opening of the film, the local parish puts on a talent show to raise money for a charity. There is a young mother, Dolly (O’Casey), who along with Lily are back-up singers for Eileen’s rendition of ‘He’s So Fine’. (Who would have thought they would have seen Maggie Smith as a back-up singer.) The prize is two tickets to Lourdes. (And the second prize is a cut of bacon.) Dolly is sad that her young son Daniel has not yet spoken.

So, we are introduced to Lourdes and the story of St Bernadette and her experience in apparitions in southern France, 1858. Lourdes is renowned for its miracles and cures, though the screenplay tells us there have only been 62 verified cures since 1858. Eileen recalls the film of The Song of Bernadette (1943). This has the support of genial parish priest, Father Dermot Byrne (O’Halloran). However, there is a sadness in the town. An elderly woman has died and her estranged daughter, Chrissie (Linney) has returned to the town after 40 years for her funeral. There is a sad story here, a reminder of much Catholic harshness, the unmarried pregnant girl, the severity of judgment, the effect on the young father, silence and alienation for decades, and sad secrets for both Lily and Eileen.

With some manoeuvring, everyone sets out for Lourdes. And here is the challenge for the audiences. The believers in the audience will have no difficulties in the concept of miracles (though perhaps not quite right because some of the pilgrims voice a number of difficulties, the brunt of scepticism, high expectations of miracles, disappointments). However, for many others this Catholic story will smack of another world of which they are not part. And, as voiced in the screenplay, there are always the suspicions of superstition and presumptuous faith.

The pilgrims go through the rituals, the visit to the grotto, stories of Bernadette and the apparitions, devotion to Mary, statues, and the important process of immersing oneself in the waters, coming from the spring that Bernadette herself dug in the soil and which has flowed ever since. It is in the baths that there are expectations of miracles and consequent disappointments.

And, there are some entertaining scenes of how everyone is managing back home. Lily’s husband taking to bed and enjoying eating, Eileen leaving her husband and six kids, a sceptical husband and, as a neighbour says, a miracle already because he actually has to do the shopping and cooking. Dolly leaves behind her young husband, who is angry at her going, and her daughter.

Towards the end, there is a lot of talk about forgiveness and reconciliation and, as we are anticipating, and probably hoping, the past angers surface, upsets, misunderstandings, the scars of hurt. And, as is so often said, as well as the statistics indicating, healings from illness are not the norm of miracles in Lourdes. Rather, it is the effect of making the pilgrimage, reflections on life and relationships, the possibilities of reconciliation and new directions in life. Dolly and the whole group also hope for a miracle when Daniel, will begin to speak. It is a tribute to the writers and the director how this is handled with reticent delicacy.

In only 90 minutes, we immerse ourselves in the Ireland of the Catholic past, go on pilgrimage to Lourdes, and experience a bit of challenge to where our own lives might need some healing and reconciliation.

(A French film, Lourdes, 2009, winner of International Catholic awards as well as critics’ awards, is another perspective on pilgrimages, miracles and the church.)

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