If God did not exist, at least as a forceful work of make-believe, no atheist would spend so much time trying to uninvent him. Aware of the frailty of the evidence, many people flock to Lourdes hoping for a divine manifestation. Others, from the opposite direction, may flock to Lourdes () hoping for a final nail in the crucifixion of belief.

Yet this miraculously engaging film – an agnostic tale imbued with religious spirit (or vice versa) – resolves nothing at all. It is art’s duty to resolve nothing, just to set questions humming like bees in a cave, as Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner does here. Why does the frail, luminously passive Christine (Sylvie Testud), a wheelchaired MS victim visiting the French shrine in a tour party, receive deliverance from her paralysis? She doesn’t believe in God. She just goes along with the group, shepherded by Order of Malta carers as they eat their cheap hotel meals (a brilliant, Tati-like opening scene), process through the souvenir mazes, queue to kiss the grotto, and take their turns turn at the water cures.

Hausner, whose career includes two barely known features and a spell as assistant to Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon), surrounds Christine with characters who come to life while saying almost nothing. The kindly young priest has no answers for those asking about God’s choices; his cynical, laconic drinking friend is a spitting image of Claude Rains in Casablanca; Christine’s roommate is an old lady devastated when her protégé’s cure threatens to remove her own emotional prop; a younger, prettier carer (Léa Seydoux) has eyes for the handsome Order of Malta volunteer (Bruno Todeschini), who himself has eyes for Christine.

Everyone and everything near-silently interact. After the miracle Christine gets a “pilgrim of the year” prize (a plaster Madonna) and the group’s gossips pretend to smile. It won’t last, their faces say. The Lourdes medical officer – who vets “miracles” – looks as if he agrees. And the Claude Rains character poses to the priest the old chestnut: “Is God good or is he all-powerful?” If he is both he could save everyone. This film is both good and powerful. It saves the God debate, still intact, for another round. It is as magically, richly ambivalent as life itself.

In The Blind Side () Sandra Bullock plays a Christian mum who adopts a gentle-giant black teenager and cheerleads him towards a football scholarship. That doesn’t sound like Lourdes, it sounds like Hollywood: the Lotusland lather cure. Bullock’s Oscar was awarded for a take-charge performance in a sudsy if truth-based role. She goes blonde, does an accent (Tennessee) and sheds a last-scene tear. Miss Bossy Boots breaks us up by giving Master Dumb Ox a closing hug. Like Wotan with Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, she has held off so long we just have to melt. Unlike Lourdes this film pushes all the buttons, resolves all the issues and shows that America, for all its loudhailed Christianity, doesn’t really need God at all. It just needs Sandra Bullock and her like.

In Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang () Emma Thompson returns as the snaggle-toothed childminder with warty moles. I don’t mind her suffering for art, but must we? Blown up to screen size, these blemishes deserve an “R” certificate. Luckily they vanish at Nanny’s first success, as she manages the warring kids of two families, one evacuated from Blitz-era London to the farm run by English-accented Maggie Gyllenhaal.

© Financial Times

We spend two hours ankle-deep in slapstick, magic and what the farmyard-repelled posh boy calls “poo”. High points include a Busby Berkeley musicalised swimming sequence with piglets, a brilliant visual gag involving a silhouetted profile in a doorway, and two or three droll put-downs smartly delivered by Master Posh (Eros Vlahos).

Martin Freeman as Rembrandt in Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching () is more Tony Hancock than Charles Laughton. The alumnus of television’s The Office plays the Dutch dauber as a sitcom Everyman, delivering mockney monologues and mini-philippics on a soundstage posing as 17th-century Amsterdam.

© Financial Times

Happily, the performance grows; so does the film. Early on, the patter of long speeches, badly delivered by some supporting actors, makes us ogle the green exit sign. Rembrandt never painted one of those – more Ed Ruscha or Ed Hopper – but nor did he live in airless sets relieved only by a permutating cyclorama. You must add to that asphyxiation hazard the need to have an IQ of 200 in order to understand Greenaway’s anti-Rembrandt conspiracy theory plot, circa the painting of “The Night Watch”. The film finally smashes a window and makes a grab for fresh air. The scenes between Freeman and Jodhi May (Geertje) have convincing gusts of passion. Greenaway’s art-and-history topic list gets thrown to the wind. There is a vertiginous sense that Freeman could, after all, have been a contender, if not in the Laughton weight class.

No One Knows about Persian Cats (), a rock drama-documentary from Iran’s Bahman Ghobadi (Turtles Can Fly), has an impenetrable title. Are Tehran’s clandestine rock musicians, in this semi-fictive tale of an emigration-bent young couple trying to assemble a band to play abroad, meant to be seen as exotic, rare-breed, slippery animals?

Since Iran bans non-religious music, the bands play and practise underground or in any retreat, from rural cowshed to roof shanty, where neighbours won’t stop or shop them. Ghobadi’s yarn is loosely ravelled, but the songs are likable. So is actor Hamed Behdad, brilliantly playing the young spiv Nader, who helps the couple meet the musicians, orders their fake passports and bribes difficult officials. In one spellbinding scene, worthy of De Niro in Mean Streets, Nader himself pleads, cajoles and motormouths to avoid jail and 75 lashes.

Lion’s Den () – a pun on Leonera, the original Argentinian title and heroine’s name – is a strongly played mother-and-child drama. Filmmaker Pablo Trapero (Rolling Family) lets everything off the leash, including lead actress Martina Gusman. We have murder (gay lover of Leonera’s husband found stabbed in kitchen); jail (suspected Leonera); childbirth behind bars; lesbian love; and childcare strife when the heroine’s mum abducts the little tot. All we need is a jailbreak attempt and – oh, here it comes, on cue in the last reel.

© Financial Times

Less than the sum of its parts? Yes. Nice parts? Yes. Something is always happening in this South American slammer, from a Santa Claus epiphany atop a prison wall to hot kissings and suicide attempts at parties. A more coherent, slightly more distinguished film is hidden under the hyperbolism, but without excavating equipment you enjoy what you can get.

Storm () is one of those issue-of-the-month co-productions by which Europe, between golden ages, makes a living. Babel casting in this German-Danish-Dutch-Swedish venture is legitimised by a plot about the UN tearing itself apart over a Serbian war criminal. Australia’s Kerry Fox, Britain’s Stephen Dillane and Romania’s Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days) tussle wordily in the Hague. We expect a draft resolution about soggy plot exposition from Russia and China, angry at not getting roles.

Suddenly everything picks up. A dud almost becomes a drama. A witness’s suicide helps; British duplicity (Dillane) is good box office; and director Hans-Christian Schmid (Requiem) concludes skilfully, even if we still feel we have attended a film made by a committee rather than an artist.

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article