The wonder of attraction to supernatural phenomenon always has stupefied me because so much of faith is not about seeing in order to believe. Yet, when even a word gets out that there is a miraculous appearance of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or a Saint, people flock to get a glimpse of what is beyond this world or to be near the person who receives the vision. Is it because every human being is wired for the Divine? Is it out of curiosity? Is it a way to validate our beliefs? Perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above. After all, faith is a gift, one that is tested throughout life especially when challenges and disappointments overwhelm us. It is an invisible reality because it is about our relationship with Being Itself, One who is beyond this material existence. I am not knocking all apparitions. The Church herself has authenticated many of these types of private revelations, such as the apparitions of Fatima and Lourdes, and I have physically been to Fatima on a pilgrimage. They are truly holy places where people’s faith is tangibly experienced and deep spiritual conversions take place. Other supposed apparitions are not authenticated, partly because of the rigorous examinations that the Church goes through to consider if such a supernatural experience is truly of God or only a human psychological concoction. Through all of this, I find myself returning to the grace present in the everyday simple experiences and situations of life, the place where our holiness is authenticated.
Xavier Giannoli’s film, The Apparition (L’Apparition) examines one such supernatural occurrence. It is a riveting reflection, though a bit long, on one young woman’s claim to have seen the Blessed Mother appear to her on a hillside. The Vatican calls together a group of experts to examine the claim by going to the village in southern France to investigate the 18-year-old young woman named Anna (Galatea Bellugi). The team is comprised of theologians, canon lawyers, psychologists, and a French war-weary journalist Jacques, played by the Cannes best actor winner Vincent Lindon (The Measure of Man). Jacques recently returned from the Middle East where he watched his friend and colleague, a combat photographer, die at his side. Suffering from emotional shock he buries himself away from social interaction until the French Cardinal invites him to take part in a special mission by the Vatican. The Church leaders want him to investigate the supposed apparition to determine if Anna is telling the truth or not. Reluctantly, he goes, though his pain is still very raw and a ringing in his ears never lets up.
Vincent Lindon as Jacques in the film "The Apparition" (2018)
When the team arrives at the pilgrimage site, they set up a meeting place where they interview all who are involved, most especially Anna herself. Her wide-eyed demeanor and simplicity intrigue Jacques, to the point that he obsesses over uncovering every detail about her and her story. He discovers that she was an orphan who grew up in foster homes and finds her to be a sensitive and devout young woman. Yet, there are many strange coincidences that make him question her motivations and the mysteries around the apparitions. In the meantime, people come from all over the world to see her, who is highly protected by the parish priest, Father Barrodine (Patrick d’Assumcao) and an overly pietistic businessman Anton (Anatole Taubman) who takes advantage of the situation to make a profit through all paraphernalia that is concocted as souvenirs.
Anna lives in a convent as a novice, though she does not wear any kind of religious garb, thus making me wonder if the filmmakers understand what a “novice” really is. In any case, she prays, eats very little, and visits a friend undercover who hands her letters from a fellow foster home girlfriend now living in the Middle East. We see Anna struggling with the numerous requests she receives, to the point of imposing what seems to be a self-inflicted fast.
Jacques, a non-practicing Christian at best and an agnostic at worst, struggles with his own beliefs while being confronted with the overly expressive faith of the apparition seekers. At first, he seeks to debunk the claims, but slowly comes to feel for the young woman and her conflicted soul. She longs to be set free from the secret she keeps hidden, to the point of madly running away in the middle of the night.
As the film progresses it becomes more about Jacques and his faith than Anna and the apparition. His own journey to seek the grace of God present in the ordinary situations of life change his perspective on his investigation. Perhaps the film really is about Jacques and the miraculous that occurs within when faith in enkindled. The ending leaves us questioning if the apparition was true or not, but perhaps Giannoli is not as concerned with the truth of the actual supernatural occurrence, but what really happens within a soul that is healed from pain and given a chance to see new life through the sacrifice of one simple soul.
Sometimes a film has the power to make us question our own motivations and beliefs. It can lead us to examine where we find true interaction with the Divine and whether the extraordinary supernatural situations become the only faith-confirming moments for us, or if we simply do not find the miraculous in the everyday. Mary and Jesus can reveal themselves to whomever they want and those occurrences are beautiful testimonies to those who are sincerely seeking God. But, if you are pragmatic like me, I find that I don’t need those situations to keep me grounded in faith. It is in the daily grind of life, lived in union with the Divine and done with love, that fulfills that yearning for the supernatural, for a connection with the Creator of all. Everyone seeks God whether they know it or not. Some seek him through the extraordinary gifts of his servants and others find him in nature, and still others find him in the relationships that challenge them to give of themselves in love. For each one, however, truly it is in the ordinary where grace is manifest even in the midst of extraordinary supernatural experience.