In movies, the miraculous is nearly always diabolic – especially in the many derivatives of The Exorcist that find priests delving into manifestations (Stigmata is a typical example) – and even all those faith-based God’s Not Dead-type pictures tend to shy away from miracles. Xavier Giannoli’s careful, tactful film – at once attenuated and engrossing – does concede a certain sinister aspect to its central mystery but tries to grapple with faith and the marvelous without defaulting to ominous Latin chanting and flashing red demon eyes.
When the odd young French girl who claims to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary is quizzed about whether she’s heard of similar cases like the miracles in Fatima, she admits that she’s only really heard of Bernadette of Lourdes – which is apt since one of the few film precedents for L’Apparition is Henry King’s The Song of Bernardette (1943), once a famous and respected prestige Hollywood production but now out of fashion and obscure. As in most films about Joan of Arc, Song of Bernardette pays lip service to the possibility that its heroine might be imagining things – but can’t bear to deem her calculating, and goes out of its way to keep believers on side by venerating the virgin with every bit as much sincerity as Miracle on 34th Street insists there is such a person as Santa Claus. Even this contemporary movie, with its disinterested rather than sceptical viewpoint character, treads very carefully around most of its issues and concentrates on an elliptical personal story and a slightly protracted mystery which requires a late-in-the-day trip to the Middle East for a well-set-up twist that ties off one puzzle but leaves a bigger one still on the table.
French journalist Jacques Mayano (Vincent Lindon), who has been injured while working as a war correspondent as traumatised by the death of his photographer best friend, is summoned to the Vatican and asked to serve on a commission of inquiry into the case of Anna (Galatéa Bellugi), a young novice in a remote village in rural France who has supposedly been visited by the Holy Virgin. An agnostic, Jacques has been recruited for his objectivity. He has an understated friction with the rest of the team, who include psychiatrist Dr de Villeneuve (Elina Löwensohn, once Dracula’s daughter in Nadja) and various church-affiliated academics, but the mission gives him something to focus on while he is sidelined from his true calling, and he winds up being struck by Anna’s pained, quiet sincerity but also by all the loose threads of her backstory, which seems by strange or divine coincidence to tie in with his own recent experiences. Giannoli, who also co-wrote with Jacques Fieschi and Marcia Romano, resists the urge to do Bunuelian satire on the miracle business, though there’s a sub-plot about a near-fanatic (Anatole Taubman) who boosts the hawking of Anna-related memorabilia he wants her to bless while the canny local priest (Patrick d’Assumçao) is wary of fully collaborating with a commission he believes would be happier to find fraud than divine intervention.
Bellugi underplays as the quiet, modest, charismatic, strong-willed girl who isn’t blind to her own celebrity but is plainly relaying the virgin’s message – be nice to each other – out of a deep, though complicated duty. She is also desperate that the sole sacred relic of her encounter – a bloodied cloth – not be subjected to scientific analysis, which obviously sets off alarm bells. The later stages of the film, which bring in more sleuthing and shift focus to another mystery girl (Alicia Hava) who has left the town, get away from the miracle, but go deeper into the character of the inquisitor. It’s a demanding movie, which seldom takes the easy dramatic route – but it is affecting and thought-provoking. Of course, the caveat is that you shouldn’t going in expecting any firm answers.