The Apparition (L’Apparition)
The Catholic Church has a problem. An 18-year-old novice in a small southern French village claims to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary several times, and pilgrims are flocking in their hundreds to attend services with her and the local priest, who is refusing to cooperate with the Vatican authorities about the affair. The Vatican decides to set up a canonical investigation to verify the truth. The investigation team includes priests, a theologian, a psychologist, and Jacques, a newspaper journalist specialising in covering war zones. This is very different from his usual work; he’s not particularly religious, and he hadn’t even heard of canonical investigations until he was asked to participate. However, now it’s his job to find and interview anyone who can shed light on what’s been happening, and whether it’s a massive confidence trick or something more genuine.
Films about religion are tricky to get right, because the audience can’t help bringing their own views along. So I’d better declare mine right away: I’m a rather hardcore atheist. Show me a miracle, and I’m immediately suspicious. That’s not to say that I’ll dismiss any film that insists on a religious view, but if a film condescends to me about how wrong I obviously am, I’m not going to be happy. I’m not sure that’s because I’m an atheist, though. If I were a Christian and a film patronisingly insisted that I was an idiot because of my beliefs, I’m certain I wouldn’t take kindly to it either. The task for Xavier Giannoli’s The Apparition is to make sure that its audience leaves in a thoughtful mood, not an irate one.
For the most part, the film manages this tightrope well; with nobody presented as obviously right or – more importantly – obviously wrong or evil. Jacques is one of many people who feel that there may be a god, but who have never looked into the matter much. The Church is worried about what’s happening, but it never tries to turn the investigation into a kangaroo court. Father Borrodine, the local priest, is shown as a victim of his own failings and of circumstances, rather than as some kind of schemer who is manipulating events. And then there’s Anna, the novice at the centre of it all and who is suffering more than anyone else involved.
Given that the film’s mystery is whether she is telling the truth or not, we cannot be allowed to come too close to her, but Giannoli is very good at showing her strength and her vulnerability without giving away the answer. We are ultimately told that she has no psychiatric problems, so this is not a case of delusion; either she is telling the truth or she is lying. But even if she is lying, she is not lying about her faith. The burden she takes on, having suddenly become a symbol for the faithful, is a crushing responsibility that she feels unable to handle. Furthermore, the Virgin Mary herself would be horrified by the massive, tacky commercialisation of the entire business, and how it influences what happens to Anna. Once your face appears in snow globes available for sale at the local souvenir shop, pilgrimages stop being a voyage to a sacred place and start being a highly profitable form of superficial tourism. Do the pilgrims ever stop to think of Anna as a human being, rather than a mere extension of a religious vision?
Oddly enough, the members of the investigation team might be the kindest people around, because they do see Anna as human. For some, it’s because from the start they don’t believe her story. As for Jacques, he is open to either possibility, and because of that he is the person that Anna most often appeals to. That doesn’t mean that he trusts what she tells him, but she feels comfortable enough with him that at one point she asks that they just talk – not about the investigation, but just as two people walking together through the woods. He obliges, and so gives her something that very few other people will. Every conversation Anna has with her supporters that we see has something to do with the apparition, which is just one more sign showing how completely events have taken over her life.
As for Jacques, the film waits a long time before allowing him to make up his own mind. His moments of doubt are overall better handled than the moments when he thinks that something really is happening, but ultimately he is the character whose views Giannoli identifies with, and Jacques’s conclusions are pretty obviously the film’s conclusions (Giannoli has more or less confirmed this in an interview.). When we reach this point, we come back to what we ourselves believe – do we agree with the film or not? And does the answer really affect how well the film works? Unfortunately it does, for several reasons. First, I disagree with the film’s message, but to tell you why would take several pages, and this shows that The Apparition has bitten off more than it can chew. The themes it engages with are too large and too complex for it to adequately handle, and I don’t mean simply the <i>religious</i> themes it discusses. My reasons for disagreeing have little to do with my atheism.
The second reason is the film’s message involves a massive plot twist at the end of the film. It’s a good one, and Giannoli clearly intends it to drive his message home to the audience. Unfortunately, it means that the audience has spent a lot of time concentrating on the wrong thing, and Giannoli refuses to give us a chance to correct ourselves. By putting the twist at the end of the film, Giannoli sacrifices an important element of the story for the moral he wants to give us. Furthermore, the twist also makes the final fate of a certain character much crueller than it initially appeared, and if Giannoli included the twist knowing this, then it just makes his moral more implausible.
This is a pity, as the film is commendably even-handed until it wants to hammer its moral home. The characters of Anna and Jacques, and their developing relationship, give the film its main interest, and they are played very well by Galatea Bellugi and Vincent Lindon. There is plenty to enjoy and think about in The Apparition, but the end of the film is unsatisfying. I didn’t leave the cinema irate, but I did leave it a little regretful.