How can the Church deal with claims of apparitions in an increasingly secular, disbelieving world? That is one of the questions at the heart of L’Apparition, a new film from French director Xavier Giannoli. Set in the present day, the action begins with the death of a war photographer in Syria. His journalistic partner, Jacques, played by the magnificently hangdog Vincent Lindon, returns to France, signed off work due to the physical and psychological damage wrought on him by the explosion that killed his friend.

Not long after Jacques returns home, boarding up his windows to keep the outside world and its horrors at bay, he receives a phone call summoning him to Rome. A senior cardinal is an admirer of his war reporting and would like to discuss a delicate matter with him urgently. Intrigued, Jacques travels to the Vatican where the cardinal offers him an assignment.

In a small French village, a young girl called Anna (Galatéa Bellugi) claims to have been visited by the Virgin Mary. Led by the local priest, who is refusing to co-operate with Church authorities, a cult has built up around her, with pilgrims flocking to the site of the alleged apparition. Jacques’ task is to lead a Vatican commission and determine whether the girl’s experiences are authentic.

Christian audiences will notice from early on that the film approaches, via Jacques, the subject of apparitions from a sceptical point of view. However, in doing this it also makes the point that the Church hierarchy treats these kinds of incidents with plenty of cynicism itself. Its criticism of the “Disneyfication” of holy sites is, it seems to me, also a valid one.

Despite this, and the fact that Jacques and Anna’s stories are beautifully mapped out and superbly acted, L’Apparition ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Often French arthouse films could do with being a little less French. But this one is that rare example that needed to be even more Gallic. It’s almost all there, from the stately pacing to the handsome cinematography and sparse dialogue, but Giannoli makes the crucial mistake of trying to bring the strands of the mystery surrounding the apparitions neatly together.

In the real world, many apparitions and miracles are argued over for centuries. Giannoli makes a vain attempt to keep his conclusion elliptical and allow the questions swirling around the visit of the Virgin to linger on. Yet he swamps proceedings with needless plot machinations involving wild coincidences and cartoon bad guys, lending an unmistakable air of Scooby-Doo to the final act, thus spoiling the thoughtful examination of faith that Giannoli clearly wanted to make – and nearly did.

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