The French film L’Apparition appears on cinema screens this weekend. It is the story of an investigative journalist and a young woman who is allegedly having visions of the Virgin Mary. It is a movie that explores belief and skepticism more than faith, however.
The film’s main character is Jacques Mayano (Vincent Lindon). He is a journalist wounded physically and psychologically during his war reporting in Iraq. Unexpectedly, upon being invalided out of the war zone back to France, he receives a call from a priest representing a high-ranking official in the Vatican. Initially, he is uncertain of whether to obey this summons to a meeting in Rome, but the priest on the other end of the line proffers those words that remove most journalists’ initial reluctance: “All your expenses will be covered.”
Thereafter, we are off to Rome with Mayano. The Vatican presented on screen is more Dan Brown than reality—or so one imagines. It is a place of all-powerful Curial officials with a court of quietly fanatical clergy and nuns assisting them in a quasi-secret mission. It is a world of seemingly endless files held in underground rooms with attendants who appear to know more than they are letting on. Needless to say, Mayano accepts the brief on offer. It is to investigate through the eyes of a secular journalist the alleged apparitions taking place in a village in France. He is to become part of the canonical investigation, alongside priests and a psychiatrist. He is, however, to remain professionally apart from it, reporting back directly to Rome and the archbishop hiring him.
Given the ongoing crisis enveloping the Church, all of this feeds the popular imagination that the Vatican is nothing more than a sea of powerful men politicking in ways not dissimilar to the Pentagon or any other center of power. In fact, when Mayano is ushered into the vaults and shown documentation of Church-approved apparitions one is reminded of James Bond being briefed in Whitehall before heading to some exotic locale to carry out his mission.
And so, thereafter, Mayano heads to an exotic location somewhere in La Belle France. It is there in a remote mountainous village that a young woman called Anna (Galatéa Bellugi) is said to have been visited by Our Lady. It turns out that Anna is communicating ‘messages’ received during these visions to the many pilgrims who now travel from across the globe to see her. Anna is now most definitely the center of a growing cult, aided by a parish priest, who looks decidedly shifty, and cheered on by a Catholic television personality who looks even more dubious. The whole thing is set up nicely. Is this young woman a true visionary, a disturbed adolescent, or a crafty fraud?
Written and directed by Xavier Giannoli, L’Apparition is a film about religion. It is not a film about faith. Granted, there is an endless array of Catholic imagery. There are, as well, many scenes where we witness clergy and nuns in procession or in silent prayer. The pilgrims, of whom there are many, do not speak any lines but we see them wandering around lighting candles and reciting the Rosary. None of this is portrayed in a mocking way. It is pretty straightforward; it is also off-putting. Catholicism as represented here is an Evangelical’s worst nightmare: it is a body of believers who seem obsessed with statues and miracles, with heavenly visitations and their ‘messages’. The whole thing has more the air of a New Age guru and his followers than the Church of Augustine and Aquinas.
The alleged seer is a novice in a local convent and therefore we experience something of her life there. Bizarrely, this consists more of Anna and the nuns making feather duvets than praying. No doubt, the feathers rising and falling against the dappled light is just too good an image for the director to miss but it is unclear, when those feathers land, what their significance is. So it is with the religion presented here; it is one of spectacle but with its meaning obscured. The seer-novice also seems to have free rein to sit in her cell with a computer surfing the internet, more akin to any worldly teenager than a young woman who has entered religious life. And just like her pilgrim fans, Anna does a lot of wandering, too: woods, mountains and even a shopping mall—sometimes dropped off at these locations by the nuns. The Song of Bernadette this is not.
Stranger still, the parish priest seems to walk the corridors of the convent late at night. In one scene he pops into the seer’s darkened room for a chat while she is tucked up in bed. Apparently, the scene is supposed to have no sexual overtones. In the current climate this episode looks even odder than it would do normally. Furthermore, it confirms a stereotype now abroad that the Catholic clergy are all a bit sinister.
The whole freakish religiosity on show is not something that is going to make any French rationalist, or indeed anyone else, reach for the Catechism of the Catholic Church any time soon. Being a French film, and an art house film at that, L’Apparition takes itself very seriously. This is an adult examination of religious phenomena mediated on screen through a hard-bitten no longer believing journalist. Well, that’s the idea. It does not quite work, however, partly because the Catholicism on display is only one (exaggerated) aspect of the faith. The film deals in supernatural visions, a subject largely peripheral to the day-to-day life and indeed struggles of the world’s one billion Catholics. In any event, I imagine the whole thing to be a flight of fancy, as it is doubtful the Vatican would launch with such speed an investigation into a teenage girl who says she sees heavenly visions, no matter how many believed her.
L’Apparition is well made, and the acting universally good, although Lindon’s worn expression, a slightly one-note performance, starts to grate after a while. Leaving aside the dafter religious aspects, the story grips us as we try to work out who is for real and who is not. If the plot had stayed simply a religious ‘whodunit’ it would have worked better and quicker, but coming in at well over 2 hours in length the film overstays its welcome. Eventually, when it comes, the ending is surprising if ultimately unconvincing. Still, this is an attempt to make a grown-up film about religious faith by exploring something of the supernatural experience even if what is on display is of an unusual, even extreme, kind.
So be warned: the madcap Catholicism here may cause acute embarrassment if this film is watched with non-Catholics. That said, there is nothing offensive on screen in L’Apparition, although the tone—one oscillating between skepticism and fanaticism—may confuse some younger viewers. In this regard, the film is also a timely reminder of the confusion and division caused by most private revelations, revealing once more that the real problem with private revelations is that they do not remain private.