A sort of spiritual thriller, “The Apparition” follows a French war correspondent as he looks into the case of a teenage girl who claims to have been visited by the Virgin Mary, in a glowing ball of light. The fact that Jacques Mayano (Vincent Lindon) — a nonbeliever who has made his career reporting just-the-facts-ma’am — has been invited to conduct this inquest at the behest of the Vatican is just the first surprising thing about this peculiar yet provocative film, which exerts a slow, mesmeric pull over the course of nearly 2 1/2 hours.
The choice of Jacques to vet the girl’s story, which, like any good yarn, contains several startling twists, is not so unusual when you discover that the Catholic Church’s policy in such canonical investigations is to err on the side of caution: failing to authenticate 100 real visitations, for example, rather than to mistakenly endorse a single sham.
And Jacques is no cynic, despite having just witnessed his photographer friend die in the terrorist bombing that opens the film (an incident, half-glimpsed via a TV report, that will come back to haunt Jacques, as well as the girl’s story, in a coincidence that almost defies credulity). Jacques seeks proof, but he comes to accept, in the end, that evidence may be less important than what some people need to believe.
“The Apparition” is not, I should stress, a film about “alternative facts” or whether the truth is or is not the truth. It is, at the same time, richly enigmatic, even when the facts of the girl’s case appear to have been laid bare, in the manner of a more conventional mystery.
As played by the young actress Galatéa Bellugi, Anna, the girl at the heart of the story, is something of a riddle herself, with her wide eyes and almost unsettlingly direct gaze and manner conveying both a sense of frankness and, in seeming contradiction, a sphinxlike inscrutability.
As the investigation proceeds, Jacques works in collaboration with a team that includes both a psychiatrist (Elina Lowensohn) — to ensure that Anna is mentally sound — and a theologian (Gérard Dessalles) to ensure that the Virgin’s pronouncements, as conveyed by her human intermediary, are in accordance with Church teaching. There’s even mention of an on-call exorcist, waiting in the wings, should the services of a professional be required to do battle with the devil. But as fascinating as all these ecclesiastical minutiae may be, this isn’t that kind of movie.
What kind of movie it is isn’t so easy to articulate.
On one level, “The Apparition” explores the limits of the scientific method when it comes to the supernatural. “What are you hoping for?” the psychiatrist asks Jacques, with a tone of disdain. “Proof?”
But proof is exactly what he has been trained to ferret out. And deception is what he expects, particularly from the sanctimonious charlatan and hanger-on (Anatole Taubman) he encounters preying on the community of Christian pilgrims that has sprung up in the circuslike atmosphere around Anna. Instead, as Jacques gets closer to the truth, he finds himself less and less certain about questions that cannot be answered: why some people sacrifice themselves for what they believe in — or for someone they love — for instance.
As a story, “The Apparition” can be taken two ways. From one vantage point, the movie (and, by extension, Jacques) does nail down the facts, with a satisfying thwack. By another light — some might say an ethereal, radiating one — there is, for every mystery that gets swatted down, another one left hanging in the air, just beyond one’s grasp.
Three stars. Unrated. Contains disturbing images, brief strong language and brief nudity. In French with subtitles. 144 minutes.
(Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.)