“The greatest sin of the modern world is perhaps its refusal of the invisible,” states the morally ambiguous priest Anton Meyer (Anatole Taubman) near the end of The Apparition. For a film that is primarily a procedural wrapped in the world of Catholicism and searching for – as Meyer puts it – “banal proof of the great mystery,” this statement is both obvious and frustrating. Religion is all about blind faith in the unseeable, while a procedural asks the audience to put the pieces together and solve the mystery that has been placed in front of them. These two ideas should inherently be at odds, yet with The Apparition, director/cowriter Xavier Giannoli and writers Marcia Romano and Jacques Fieschi seem to believe they’ve found an ideal middle ground to investigate the unknowable. While their attempt is admirable, The Apparition can never quite balance its mystery and the uncertainty.
While in the Middle East, reporter Jacques Mayano (Vincent Lindon) sees his photographer colleague shot dead. Back at home, the ringing in his ears is a reminder of the tragedy he’s witnessed, and Mayano has taken to placing cardboard in the windows of his home to keep the outside world out. While on leave, Lindon receives a surprise call from the Vatican. As a secular writer, Lindon is exactly who the Canonical Investigation Commission needs to investigate a potential vision in France.
The witness in question is Anna (Galatéa Bellugi), who claims to have seen the Virgin Mary, and is now often surrounded by a group of fanatical believers. Amongst Anna’s entourage of believers is Father Borrodine (Patrick d’Assumçao), who isn’t happy with the Church’s investigation into Anna’s apparition, and the aforementioned Meyer, who wants to market Anna almost as a new saint. Meyer already has the merchandise and live streams of Anna ready to go, regardless of the findings.
Mayano wants to use physical proof to discover whether Anna is lying or not, while the church looks more into Anna’s personal life and religious history. These two never coalesce in a worthwhile way, as the Church have provided priests and psychologists to assess Anna’s statments, but The Apparition focuses almost exclusively on Mayano’s search for answers. These two different factions clash at times, but only in very small, irrelevant arguments.
Giannoli follows Mayano’s investigation in a very haphazard way, with Mayano essentially going on a wild goose chase, following every lead he can, some of which go nowhere, other promising leads are almost never followed up on. Mayano’s hunt for answers eventually finds some grounding when he discovers Anna’s best friend Mériem (Alicia Hava), who mysteriously can’t be found, but this is after almost an hour of wandering.
At almost two-and-a-half hours, The Apparition has too much searching for answers for its own good. Mayano’s investigation is often not much more than directionless meandering, and not enough is ever done with the religious aspect of the religious investigation. The Apparition doesn’t balance the provable and the invisible until the very end, and in doing this, finds a pat conclusion that doesn’t fit in with the mysteries of faith that The Apparition has been touting for 140 minutes.
At the very least, both sides of this coin are bolstered by strong lead performances. Lindon’s frustration is palpable, especially since the audience it also in his position. But its Bellugi that is doing much of the heavy lifting here, with a performance that seems genuine, yet with an uncertainty underneath that makes the audience believe her, albeit with some caveats. Giannoli’s most beautiful cinematic moments center around Anna and her working with the nuns with their pillow stuffing business. In these moments, Giannoli shoots with natural light and flying feathers, that looks almost like an angel that has been trapped in a woodcutter, and are the finest scenes in the entire film.
The Apparition thinks its better at combining the mysteries of faith with actual mysteries than it truly is. Lindon and Bellugi make the story engaging, but they can’t make the mysteries at the center of the film any more cohesive or compelling than they are on the page. The characters of The Apparition strive to find certainty in uncertainty, which just becomes a muddled and inconclusive mess.