Marie Heurtin was born blind and deaf just five years after Helen Keller, and she experienced a similar liberation through the discovery of sign language. The French girl's tale is the harsher one, since Keller didn't lose sight and sound until she was 19 months old and was able to communicate in a limited way with another girl before the breakthrough dramatized in The Miracle Worker.
And yet, as told by director and co-scripter Jean-Pierre Ameris, Marie's Story is gentler and less melodramatic. An account of faith as well as knowledge, the movie recalls the work of such transcendental French filmmakers as Alain Cavalier (notably with 1986's Therese) and Robert Bresson.
Ameris is a less distinctive stylist than either of them, although his depiction of nature is evocative and sometimes poignant. In the arresting introductory sequence, Marie (Ariana Rivoire) holds her hand up toward the sun, a presence she knows only as heat, not light.
The 14-year-old Marie is in a wagon driven by her father on the road to the Larnay Institute, where Catholic nuns teach deaf girls to sign (and, most likely, become tomorrow's nuns). The mother superior (Brigitte Catillon) rejects Marie because she's blind as well as deaf. But Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carre) bonds with the girl as she coaxes her out of a tree, her customary refuge. Marguerite insists that Marie be allowed to study at the convent.
It's a demand she may at first regret. Unbathed and uncombed, Marie looks a bit like another savage of French cinema fame, Truffaut's 1970 The Wild Child. The other girls don't accept her, so Marie sleeps in Marguerite's room. They become very close, yet Marie wildly rejects any change in routine, which includes learning sign language.
Rather than a doll or similarly unthreatening toy, Marie's prized possession is a pocketknife. So Marguerite tries to enlist the potentially dangerous object in her teaching, whose doggedness is underscored by recurring cello lines. The symbol she keeps signing into Marie's hand is the one for "knife."
There wouldn't be much of a story if Marie didn't ultimately learn to sign, but that practical knowledge is followed by even more challenging information. Marguerite has an unnamed lung disease, probably tuberculosis, and will not live long. The nun's trip to a sanatorium — an absence foolishly not explained to Marie — triggers the girl's furious regression. So when Marguerite returns, she tries to teach religion's hardest lesson: the acceptance of death.
The subject is quietly heightened by a speech in which the mother superior reveals herself as something more than a dogmatic authority figure. At first, she says, she assumed that women who had lived religious lives would die peacefully. But her experience in the convent has taught her otherwise.
There's probably no record of the actual nun's thoughts to support that dialogue. In an opening note, the movie professes only to be "inspired by real events." But if the movie's portrait of the Larnay Institute is idealized, that's mostly because it depicts a place where doctrine is tempered by reality.
The movie's tone is intimate, which means it relies heavily on the two principal actresses. Carre achieves just the right balance of delicacy and determination, while Rivoire — a novice who is deaf but not blind — begins fiercely bewildered and becomes surprisingly serene. Both have radiant smiles, illuminating every moment of understanding or empathy. Their rapport warms the movie as surely as the opening scene's sun.