The Apparition (“L’apparition”) (Xavier Giannoli, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.
A film sometimes too overwrought for its own good, French director Xavier Giannoli’s The Apparition nevertheless features enough engaging elements to make for solid drama, even if, at approximately 135 minutes (not counting credits), it drags by the end. It features, among other things, a fine lead performance from Vincent Lindon (Rodin) as Jacques, a world-weary war correspondent, suffering from PTSD, who takes a break from the Middle East to cover the disturbing case of a young woman convinced she has seen the Virgin Mary. Summoned to Rome by the French bishop (a fan of Jacques’ work) in whose territory the sighting has taken place, Jacques is asked if he could, as a trustworthy outside observer, participate in the investigation of the case, since the Catholic Church is wary of popular, unofficial miracles. As we all have amply seen in the past decade, the Church likes to be in control, even to its own detriment.
And so Jacques travels to the fictional mountain town of Carbarat, where the local priest, angry that Rome won’t simply accept facts as he presents them, simmers and schemes while a committee comprised of religious scholars (plus Jacques) interrogates young Anna, the 18-year-old at the center of the maelstrom. Abandoned as a child, she has grown up in foster care, not unhappy but clearly always seeking community, first among her fellow housemates, and now in the convent where she is at present a novitiate. With her large, expressive eyes dominating a round, pale face, actress Galatéa Bellugi (Being 14) perfectly incarnates the raw emotional need of this apparent innocent, around whom swirls a gathering storm of pilgrims, officials and hangers-on. Jacques finds her intriguing, but his innate cynicism (the reason he was chosen, after all), leads him to track down all those who knew her before, and in so doing, he begins to unravel the mystery.
The truth, when finally uncovered, is not what sceptics, or true believers, might expect. There’s enough ambiguity in the finale to either satisfy all parties, or none, a simultaneous strength and weakness of the script; the refusal to commit is a slight cop-out, though the surprise at the end is not unpleasant. Overall, the pacing of the film, along with the careful compositions Giannoli uses to frame both facial and alpine landscapes, makes for a cinematic experience best described as a meditative thriller. This, coupled with the director’s clear condemnation of the commercialization of spirituality (there are baubles galore for sale at the apparition site), makes the movie well worth watching, as an examination of the intricacies of faith and its appropriation by those who would abuse it. That kind of manna, we can all agree, is most definitely not from heaven.
[In French with English subtitles]