With its semi-miraculous plot contrivances ‘The Apparition’ is beyond belief

A hard-bitten hack investigates a vision of the Virgin Mary. Vincent Lindon gives a wonderful performance, but this French drama is otherwise a test of faith

There aren’t, to be frank, many compelling virtues to The Apparition – this French religious drama is an uneven curiosity – but in its favour it boasts a commendable central performance by Vincent Lindon. In almost every scene of this two-hour-plus movie Lindon gives a wonderfully wearisome turn as journalist Jacques Mayano.

A veteran reporter of countless conflicts, he has the drained, battle-hardened expression of a hack who’s seen it all, a worldly scepticism that will be put to the test by the possibly supernatural events of The Apparition. Playing Jacques, Lindon exudes an air of exhaustion, an existential stupor from which no amount of coffee – and he does drink a lot – can rouse him. He has the journalist’s gift of prising sensitive information from his sources, but I can’t say this is because his hangdog attitude comes with any seductive charm. Mostly, I suspect, people tell him what we want to know because they see those sad, imploring eyes staring back at them and they crack from a sense of pity.

Jacques has reason to feel sad. In the opening scene of Xavier Giannoli’s movie he’s just finished an assignment in the Middle East, where an explosion killed his photographer colleague. Still grieving, he takes up the offer of an assignment from a Monsignor in Rome – a young woman called Anna (Galatéa Bellugi) claims to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a remote hillside spot in rural France. News of her sighting has spread quickly, thanks to a maverick priest, and now pilgrims are flocking to the area, converging around 18-year-old Anna with near-hysterical devotion.

Fast losing control of the situation in this distant French outpost, the Vatican is keen to reassert its authority, and so Jacques is called in to head up a committee to report on the validity of Anna’s apparition. Jacques is an acknowledged agnostic, and ecclesiastical experts who form his investigative team remain unconvinced about Anna. A suspicion forms that the Vatican is rather embarrassed by the goings-on around this purported apparition and would rather discredit the whole thing.

I suspect people tell Jacques what we want to know because they see those sad, imploring eyes staring back at them and they crack from a sense of pity

Indeed The Apparation offers a fairly engaging portrait of the arcane yet effective political manoeuvring of the inner workings of the Vatican; compared to the atmosphere of earthy vitality that surrounds Anna, complete with kitsch souvenirs and pilgrims who descend on the young woman like groupies, Jacques’ superiors in Rome are calculated, sophisticated, and operate with a cool ruthlessness that is a distant cry from any spiritual vocation.

Between these two worlds Jacques struggles to find a role. The subtle theological points underpinning his investigation absorb him up to a point – and us; the film offers some diversion as a kind of Da Vinci Code with arthouse pretensions. But increasingly he’s drawn to the fragile figure of Anna. Played by Bellugi with an ethereal detachment, Anna had a troubled background in and out of care homes before joining a convent.

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Jacques becomes increasingly obsessed with this young woman, and director Giannoli retains a sense of mystery to his motivations. Does Anna, a strange mix of physical vulnerability and inner conviction, offer solace to the traumatised Jacques? Is the unbelieving Jacques developing the pangs of devotion towards her? Or is Jacques’ attraction more worldly – a middle-aged man’s fixation on a younger woman?

There’s a sense of intrigue here, but Giannoli struggles to sustain our interest. And without venturing into spoiler territory I’m not entirely sure the reveal at the end is a big enough pay-off for our attention. It also relies on some creaky plot contrivances, improbable coincidences – maybe they are miracles? – and swerves in tone that would test the faith of the most devoted viewer.

The Apparition is in cinemas from August 3

Image: Still from The Apparition