“The Apparition” is a mystery without a murder, or any other serious crime—except possibly dishonesty—to carry its story forward. Set in contemporary France, it opens with a journalist, Jacques, (played by Vincent Lindon), who has just lost a colleague to war-related violence somewhere in the Middle East. Devastated by the loss, he is unexpectedly called to the Vatican, where a high church official recruits him to investigate an alleged appearance of the Virgin Mary in a rural town in France.
Still under a cloud of grief, and with concern from his wife, he goes despite—or because of—his state of mind. There he joins an investigative committee in the town and finds a complicated situation of priests with mixed motives, deep spiritual hunger from crowds of pilgrims and seekers, and at the center of it all, the young visionary, Anna, played by Galatea Bellugi.
Directed by Xavier Giannoli, “The Apparition” approaches its subject with respect, never bowing to cheap shots, whether a character is devoutly Catholic, an agnostic, or something else. As Jacques conducts his investigation, it becomes clear—and not surprising—that his emotional involvement with both the background of Anna and his own grief at the loss of his friend are complicating his work as he finds more unanswered questions both about Anna’s friends—she was part of the foster care system in the town--and the apparition itself.
A common problem with storytelling is structure: Too much of it, and many viewers are put off by its heavy-handedness; too little, and many feel as if the storyteller is leaving them behind, essentially saying, "It’s your job to give some meaning to this." Unfortunately, in the case of “The Apparition,” there are signs by the end that the latter problem has taken over. Of course, it could also be argued that this is not a problem at all, but rather the pure intention of the writer/director.
But when (seemingly) important questions remain unanswered, the ending—in this case, a beautiful act of charity and courage on the part of Jacques—isn’t fully satisfactory, as if the balance of storytelling is out of whack.
Still, as a film that attempts to explore contemporary religion without condescension, “The Apparition” deserves a viewing.
[This film is not rated; it has some very brief nudity. In French with English subtitles.]