French director Xavier Giannoli has been making feature films for a dozen years. L’Apparition is his latest, and it’s likely to follow his other films in garnering a best picture nomination in next year’s César Awards, the equivalent of our Oscars.
The Apparition, which opens this week in a limited American release, is a very Catholic film, although not along the lines of Henry King’s Song of Bernadette (1941) or John Brahm’s The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952). Those films told the stories of the two most famous apparitions of Our Lady – 1858 in France and 1917 in Portugal – and they depicted actual events. Giannoli’s film is wholly fiction, and – as you might expect from any 21st-century movie – it expresses skepticism.
Or does it?
In a village in France, a teenage girl named Anna Ferron (Galatéa Bellugi) claims to have seen the Blessed Virgin, who has spoken to her and also given her a mysterious bloodstained cloth. Such claims must be taken seriously, and they are.
The Vatican calls upon a legendary French war correspondent, Jacques Mayano (Vincent Lindon), to investigate. He’s not a believer, and although baptized and confirmed in the Church, he’s barely even Christian after all the horrors he has witnessed, most recently in the Middle East, where his best friend, a photojournalist, has been killed. Mayano carries with him the fragment of an icon, a reminder of his friend’s death.
Mr. Lindon is a great movie actor. He has a hangdog look and a steady gaze that says he has seen it all and is still looking. He’s the sort of reporter who sees lies in others’ eyes.
In Rome, Mayano studies approved apparitions in the Vatican archives and listens to explanations given by experts. These scenes are done with economical authenticity – in the surroundings, the dialogue, and the characters: the archivist is all business; a consulting priest is knowledgeable but humble; the journalist is skeptical but fascinated.
Having formally accepted the assignment, Mayano leaves Rome for France and arrives at the site of the alleged apparition, which resembles a medieval carnival. Everywhere there are images of Anna: on banners, posters, votive candles, coffee mugs, tee shirts, all of which, presumably, Anna has blessed.
When the reporter first sees her, she is surrounded by a phalanx of nuns (Anna has become a postulant at the local convent), and as she walks by pilgrims reach out to touch her.
Miss Bellugi’s performance is fine, albeit rungs down the ladder from Mr. Lindon’s. Her large eyes show a mixture of wariness and pleasure at her celebrity. She is a troubled young woman, as, of course, she would be either because Our Lady has chosen her to receive a message from heaven or because Anna has fabricated the story out of whole cloth, bloodstained or not.
Mayano heads up an investigative team that includes two priests, a theologian, a psychiatrist, and a videographer. When Mayano interviews Anna, she seems honest and, perhaps, credible. Still, everyone on the team, not least Mayano, has doubts.
The Virgin, Anna says, told her she mustn’t be afraid. “I hear the cries of the world,” the mother of Jesus says and asks Anna to “build a house for her son.”
When Anna tells Mayano, “I’m not a liar,” it seems a clue to nothing. It’s what a liar would say, being a liar; it’s also what a truthful person would say.
Throughout her ordeal, Anna is “managed” by the local priest, Fr. Borodine (Patrick d’Assumçao), and by a German marketer, Anton Meyer (Anatole Taubman). Their motives are suspect. Or are they?
As Mayano interviews people and tracks down leads, Anna develops a fondness for him, because she sees he’s superb at what he does, but she also grows frightened of him – why, exactly, we can’t be sure.
Soon her fear and worry begin to overwhelm her and the pressure of her growing fame is too much to bear. Besides, she is carrying other burdens, about which Mayano learns too late. Mayano worries about Anna too, especially when she calls his cell phone, which each time reads out “Unknown Caller” when she does.
This is the sort of movie in which the denouement mustn’t be revealed in a review.
In a film in which the emphasis is forensic – on interviews with Anna and Mayano’s investigations into all the aspects of her “case” – the pace is often slow to the point of plodding. My usual reaction when this happens in a movie is to mutter to myself, “Blow something up, for heaven’s sake.” Not this time, because of Mr. Giannoli’s attention to detail.
In a scene in which the huckster, Meyer, talks to Mayano, he circles him like a shark waiting to attack. He bares his teeth, smiling. He may or may not be a believer in Anna’s holiness, but he definitely sees in the reporter a threat to future profits.
And there’s a lovely scene in which Anna is working/training in the convent laundry, during which we see her and the nuns blowing goose down into a duvet, then picking off the stray feathers that have attacked to their habits – clearly a business of the house, and the kind of cinematic moment that gives both beauty and believability to the film.
Mayano and his psychiatrist colleague have an exchange in which she senses his frustration. The reporter must have proof of Anna’s claims. “Proof?” the shrink says. “If there were proof, there’d be no choice, no mystery. Faith is a free, enlightened choice.”
The mystery of The Apparition is solved in the end, although in a way you won’t see coming. Faith is also fact.
There was a time (the 1950s and 60s) when character-based French films – and France is where the movies began – were a staple in American theaters. Some recent French films (Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist) have done well in the United States, and Xavier Giannoli’s The Apparition deserves equal success.
The Apparition has not received a Motion Picture Association of America rating. There is one scene in which a woman is defibrillated, which exposes her breasts, and frustration is several times expressed with obscenities. The cast includes Elina Löwensohn as the shrink and Alicia Hava as the mysterious Mériem.