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THE APPARITION (2018) review

September 7, 2018

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written by: Xavier Giannoli
produced by: Olivier Delbosc
directed by: Xavier Giannoli
rated: not rated
runtime: 144 min.
U.S. release date: September 7, 2018

 

“The Apparition” turns out to be the type of film I hope to see about religious faith. It doesn’t water down or generalize belief, nor does it placate to believers, but rather shares the nuances and struggles that come with grasping whether or not God exists. At least that’s what I gleaned from writer/director Xavier Giannoli’s latest feature (his first since 2015’s “Maguerite”) upon first viewing, an experience that left me pondering how faith is maintained by an individual and perceived in general by believers. Not too bad for a film that, based on its title, one would assume revolves around some kind of conspiracy or turn out to be a kind of art-house ghost flick. That would be too obvious though. “The Apparition” tells a more personal and absorbing tale than I was expecting and despite its somewhat glacial pace, which tested my attention at times, I found myself revisiting certain key moments well after viewing.

As the film opens we meet Jacques Mayano (Vincent Lindon “The Measure of a Man”), a journalist primarily known for covering war-torn locations, a man who is damaged both physically and emotionally – and quite possibly, unbeknownst to him, spiritually. Still reeling from a recent in the Middle East, a trauma that resulted in the tragic loss of his friend and photographer and left him with a ringing ear, Jacques receives a mysterious request from the Vatican to take on a special investigation, requiring him to travel to a French village where a young novitiate claims to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. It’s an unusual request, but one gets the idea that Jacques takes it in order to retreat from anyone close to him while still registering his grief.

 

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He’s told that the Vatican hopes a outsider’s viewpoint on this reported apparition will shine an impartial light on the truth of the situation. The agnostic Jacques is accompanied by a canonical team, composed of theologians and scientists, such as Père Gallois (Bruno Georis) and Docteur de Villeneuve (Elina Löwensohn “Let the Corpses Tan”), all of whom form a cordial, albeit trepidatious, working relationship with the journalist. When they arrive, it immediately become clear that the village has become a pilgrimage destination for the faithful, hoping to visit the area where 18-year-old Anna (a transfixing Galatéa Bellugi) saw the image and maybe even meet her in person. There are souvenir T-shirts, postcards and pictures of Anna, as well as plastic figurines of the Virgin Mary for visitors to purchase, exuding an unexpected and awkward commercial atmosphere.

When we meet Anna, she is accompanied by the local main priest, Father Borrodine (Patrick d’Assumçao “Stranger By the Lake”), who comes across like the girl’s cautious handler. He is reluctant to work with Jacques and his team, projecting a degree of resentment toward the investigation the church has called for. It could be he’d rather preserve the attention Anna’s popularity is garnering, which provides more listeners to his sermons than ususal, or maybe there’s a desire to prevent details about Anna and her background from surfacing. Working with the priest is Anton Meyer (Anatole TaubmanCaptain America: The First Avenger“), a public relations character who is set on turning Anna into a worldwide sensation, spinning her every move or utterance into an event.

From the moment Jacques observes Anna, he is intrigued and it becomes clear that she sees something in him that stands out as well. While his colleagues go about their research, Jacques uses puts his investigative skills to use to find information about Anna – what her childhood was like, who her friends are and most importantly, who this young woman is – and get her take on what she experienced. Over the next few days, a gradual bond is developed founded by Jacques’ inquisitiveness and Anna’s openness, a natural and pure connection that the two of them subconsciously need. The more time we spend with the two characters, the more we learn that they may be just what the other person needs at this point in their lives. Jacques could be the right person for Anna to divulge her truths to and Anna could be a strong influencer in dealing with his own inner conflicts of faith and religion.

 

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What becomes clear while watching “The Apparition” is how Lindon and Georis are deftly mining subtleties and nuances, delivering unexpected richness to their characters. As a screenwriter, Giannoli provides solid roles for these two actors to flesh out and they do so in several impressive instances that often simply consist of just the right response, expression or internal acknowledgment. The more time spent watching the two actors, the more I was absorbed by the story and considering the meandering and repetitive pace and tone of Giannoli’s story, that’s indeed a testament to their performances. The overall story could’ve benefitted form a trim, offering a more streamlined investigation which would then allow a sharper focus on characterization, which is the film’s strength. There doesn’t feel like there’s a justification for the story to be broken up into six chapters, except to offer an aesthetic distinction. Such decisions don’t quite take away from the story, but that also aren’t adding much either.

While “The Apparition” trips over itself a bit when it offers somewhat muddy revelations in relation to what really happened to Anna, it’s nevertheless tackling intriguing concepts with interesting characters. I definitely appreciate this modern-take on the rumored occurrence, which certainly offers a fascinating look at maintaining and wrestling with faith in a much more compelling manner than we typically see in modern cinema.

Perhaps the most interesting and curious aspect of this French drama – and the likely reason it was made – is how it is allegedly inspired by the true story of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes. “The Apparition”  doesn’t open with “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events”, but it’s no surprise to learn a teenage girl supposedly witnessed a total of eighteen Virgin Mary apparitions in the late 1850s, since the way in which the story is told feels like it comes from a real place.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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