‘The Apparition’ (‘L’Apparition’): Film Review

Cannes best actor winner Vincent Lindon stars in writer-director Xavier Giannoli’s ‘The Apparition,’ which follows a reporter investigating a young French woman who claims to have seen the Virgin Mary.

Like a Dan Brown movie made with more naturalistic, art house intentions, The Apparition (L’Apparition) combines a mystery plot involving the Catholic church with the continent-hopping story of a traumatized war reporter seeking the truth at all costs.

The result is a film that intrigues in its initial stages, with Cannes best actor winner Vincent Lindon (The Measure of a Man) delivering another Gary Cooper-esque stoical turn, but then overstays its welcome and fails to deliver in the final stretch. Still, writer-director Xavier Giannoli (Marguerite) reveals his knack for making small-scale epics that offer plenty of atmosphere and all-around strong performances, which could help propel this mid-February release into markets outside of Francophonia.

The Bottom Line

A well-crafted religious epic that’s not always believable.

Divided into several chapters — which, along with the two-hour-plus running time, gives you the impression that this may have played better as a TV miniseries — the story follows world-weary journo Jacques (Lindon) as he travels back from a war zone in the Middle East to his native France. We quickly learn that his colleague and good friend, who was a combat photographer, died at his side, leaving Jacques with an emotional shock that manifests itself through the constant pain and ringing he feels in his ears.

Before he even has time to process the disaster, Jacques is contacted by a French cardinal at the Vatican, who invites him to Rome for a special mission. In a lengthy and intriguing sequence set in the church’s underground archives, Jacques learns that an 18-year-old girl named Anna (Galatea Bellugi) claims to have seen an “apparition” of the Virgin Mary outside her village in southern France. Since then, the place has become a pilgrimage zone where worshippers travel from the world over to visit the miracle in person. The Vatican wants Jacques to investigate and determine whether such an event actually occurred, or whether Anna made the whole story up.

If this were indeed a Dan Brown movie, then Jacques would soon uncover a secret conspiracy involving Satan, gargoyles, some mumbo-jumbo about the Illuminati and lots of evil priests speaking Latin. Giannoli thankfully takes things in a different direction, even if there are hints at Catholic corruption in the behavior of Father Borrodine (Patrick d’Assumcao), whose local church has been profiting off Anna, and Anton (Swiss actor Anatole Taubman), a sort of Christian marketing wizard hoping to turn the apparition into an online sensation.

But the film mostly concentrates on Jacques’ relationship with the mysterious and fragile girl, whose troubled life — she’s an orphan who was raised in several foster homes — interests him as much as her alleged spiritual sighting. Lindon utters few words here, but he fitfully portrays an emotionally wounded man who latches on to Anna as a way to forget his own turmoil. His character obsesses over every minute detail of the girl’s story, until Jacques begins to uncover bizarre anomalies and coincidences that lead him to question both Anna’s sincerity and the role of the church in her rise to martyr status.

This is the kind of movie where you keep wondering how everything will be tied up in the end — whether it will all make sense and, more importantly, whether the apparition really happened. In other words: Does God exist? Alas, Giannoli fails to tackle that ultimate question in a convincing manner, relying more on shaky plot mechanics than on deeper issues of faith. What could have been a powerful study of religion in the modern era becomes, instead, a whodunit that winds up getting solved like a TV mystery, although the way Giannoli deals with Jacques’ path to recovery is more poignant.

The director nonetheless has a firm grasp on intimately epic storytelling (something showcased in his excellent fourth feature, In the Beginning), and much of The Apparition keeps the viewer on edge, even if the film runs longer than it should. Working with cameramen Eric Gautier (Into the Wild), he captures the plethora of locations — from the hidden bowels of the Vatican to the scorched deserts of Jordan to the abundant forests of France — in impressive ways, making his drama feel bigger than life yet keeping things focused on a handful of key characters.

Alongside Lindon, relative newcomer Bellugi (Heal the Living) offers an arresting turn as a sheltered young woman holding onto a few too many secrets and suffering the consequences. D’Assumcao (Stranger by the Lake) and Taubman are also good as men of the cloth who confuse their desire to believe with their need to turn a small-town church into a successful enterprise.

Production company: Curiosa Films
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Galatea Bellugi, Patrick d’Assumcao, Anatole Taubman, Elina Lowensohn
Director: Xavier Giannoli
Screenwriters: Xavier Giannoli, in collaboration with Jacques Fieschi, Marcia Romano
Producer: Olivier Delbosc
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Production designer: Riton Dupire-Clement
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editor: Cyril Nakache
Casting directors: Coralie Amedeo, Michael Laguens
Sales: Memento

In French, Italian
137 minutes