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Facing grief: a comparison between “Lourdes” and “Million Dollar Baby”

“She’s not asking for God’s help, she’s asking for mine!”

“She’s not asking for God’s help, she’s asking for mine!” boxing trainer Frankie Dunn, main character of Million Dollar Baby (2004), answers his priest Father Horvak when the former asks the latter for some advice about how he should handle his junior athlete Maggie’s delicate situation. This line perfectly sums up the conclusion the main character of Million Dollar Baby gets to at the end of the film and it also summarizes the film’s point of view on the theme of euthanasia. The film is about how people cope with struggles that prevent them from fully enjoying their lives. The same issue is tackled in Lourdes (2009) by Jessica Hausner but the way the two screenwriters address it is totally different, which leads to two totally different conclusions and which generates two totally different feelings in the audience. Million Dollar Baby conveys realism, whereas Lourdes is supposed (but fails) to convey hope.

“Million Dollar Baby” tackles the issue of how human beings can cope with something which is more powerful than them in a complete and multi-layered way, whereas “Lourdes” suggests a unilateral point of view regarding the issue, thus failing to consider it from different perspectives and relying on the fact that the viewer is already a fervent believer in Christianity and miracles.

In the present work I am going to highlight the main differences in the way the theme of how people face grief is addressed in Million Dollar Baby and Lourdes in order to support my argument that the former conveys a much more complete, believable and, ultimately, interesting and challenging point of view than the latter.

Million Dollar Baby (2004), written by Paul Haggis and directed by Clint Eastwood tells the story of gym owner and boxing trainer Frankie Dunn who, in quest for atonement for his past mistakes, accepts to train and help amateur boxer Maggie Fitzgerald achieve her dream of becoming a professional. During the final match for the WBA Women Welterweight title, Maggie’s opponent knocks her out with an illegal punch from behind. Before Frankie can pull the corner stool aside, Maggie lands hard on it, breaking her neck, which leaves her a quadriplegic.

During the second half of the film, Frankie is shown experiencing the first three of the five stages of grief: denial (seeking multiple doctors’ opinions), anger (blaming his friend Scrap who encouraged him to agree to train Maggie) and bargain (praying God). From the moment Maggie gets paralysed in bed until Frankie’s final decision to grant Maggie’s wish, the main character’s point of view changes radically, thus constantly interrogating the viewer about what is right and what is wrong and about what makes life worth living for. During the last stage of grief Frankie is shown experiencing, the bargain, the main character also asks his priest for advice about what to do, in a scene where the main character is shown struggling to decide between his Christian faith (according to which, as the priest suggests, he should just “step aside and leave her with God”) and his moral values (according to which he should do something).

 

Lourdes (2009) tackles the theme of a person facing a major struggle as well, but fails to explore it in a complete way. Screenwriter and director Jessica Hausner, in fact, tells the story of a young woman, Christine, who, confined to a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, embarks on a journey to Lourdes, together with a group of people also suffering from different diseases. During her stay, she starts to regain the use of her limbs, until she finally manages to stand and even to dance, just to ultimately fall back on her wheelchair, exhausted, letting the viewer decide whether the miracle occurred or not.

Her passivity, both physical and psychological, makes it difficult for the audience to empathise with her. We believe that a character wants something when we see them running the story. However, Christine is never shown struggling to keep her faith despite her situation. As events occur to her, she just succumbs to circumstances, making it difficult for the audience to understand and feel for her.

Differently from Maggie in Million Dollar Baby, who actively makes the choice of asking Frankie to help her die, through increasingly explicit and extreme ways, Christine in Lourdes is simply “blessed” with this gift, without her expressing any radical position about such a delicate matter. On the one hand, in Million Dollar Baby we care about Maggie because we see the passion she puts in everything she does and the love she gives to other people (Frankie and her family). On the other hand, the viewer has difficulty understanding the reason why Christine is in Lourdes in the first place, since she is presented as being less devoted than other pilgrims, and her feelings towards other people and herself. The audience ultimately find themselves wondering whether she actually deserves the miracle.

We believe that a character wants something when we see them running the story. However, in “Lourdes”, Christine is never shown struggling to keep her faith despite her situation. As events occur to her, she just succumbs to circumstances, making it difficult for the audience to understand and feel for her.

Furthermore, Million Dollar Baby depicts a more complete struggle between the religious and the laic point of view, whereas Lourdes just conveys the Christian view. Hausner’s film, far from encouraging the spectator to question their opinion about religion and miracles, only appeals to people who already believe in God and completely ignores the laic point of view. For Lourdes to explore the theme of grief completely, it would have helped to understand what influenced Christine’s decision to go to Lourdes and to observe her spiritual journey, from sceptic to believer, before being blessed with the miracle.

Finally, it is worth noting that Million Dollar Baby openly references religion throughout the film, both under the explicit form of prayers, church-going and priests, and the subtle form of symbolism. In fact, Maggie is presented as a believer, wearing a crucifix necklace throughout her ordeal. Haggis and Eastwood’s choice to deliberately include so many references to religion and to Christian values shows an admirable care in exploring the theme of grief in depth, as well as a commendable courage in expressing both points of view, the religious and the laic one.

“She’s not asking for God’s help, she’s asking for mine!” Frankie replies to Father Horvak who suggests he should step aside and let God handle the situation instead. This scene in Million Dollar Baby represents the conflict between two opposite points of view about grief and the way humans react to struggles that go beyond their ability to understand. This conflict between two different points of view cannot be found in Lourdes, which tackles the same issue in a simplistic, naïve and superficial vision of it. Million Dollar Baby, therefore, makes a more complete argument on facing grief that the audience can associate with.