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The Catholic Church demands faith from its billion-plus members. The new French drama The Apparition is about what happens when the faithful get too extreme, so the Church develops its own kind of skepticism. Directed by Xavier Giannoli, this film is a drama that has the format of a procedural. The film is not unlike Spotlight, especially since our protagonist is a journalist, but there is no mention of scandal or corruption. Instead, it follow the classic formula of how a religious skeptic contends with the possibility of the divine. The final scenes do not match the intrigue of the beginning, but how could they? The possibility of proof is almost always more tantalizing than the final result.

We spend a long time with Jacques (Vincent Lindon) before he begins his religious investigation. A journalist who specializes in covering war zones, Jacques is still reeling from an assignment that led to his partner’s untimely death and a persistent ear injury. He receives a strange phone call: A bishop in the Vatican wants to meet with him to discuss “a sensitive matter.” The Church is about to look into Anna (Galatéa Bellugi), a 16-year-old in southern France who claims she saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. The bishop wants Jacques to be a part of the official investigation about whether Anna’s vision is authentic. Before long, Jacques heads to the small village where Anna lives and pilgrims are gathering to worship her. The Apparition follows Jacques’ investigation, including how he develops a rapport with Anna.

The lead performances from Lindon and Bellugi are a compelling study of contrasts. Lindon is a bit like France’s equivalent of George Clooney, and here he downplays his natural charisma with a character who is quiet, curious, and respectful. There are long stretches of the film in which Lindon does not say what he is thinking, and so his transition from an observer into a participant is conveyed through masterful non-verbal acting. As Anna, Bellugi is an even tougher nut to crack: She has an unnerving presence, made more extreme by her passionate followers. Another key character is Father Borrodine (Patrick d’Assumçao), a priest who first learns of Anna’s vision. His devotion to her is borderline unseemly—it is unclear whether he is using her—and the ambiguity is made even more maddening since the Church disavows Borrodine, at least until Jacques’ investigation complete.

Although The Apparition is never funny, there is a grim irony in how Jacques fits into his role. There is a lengthy scene in the Vatican where two priests methodically explain how the Church handles supernatural claims (some of the documents, dating back hundreds of years, are so fragile Jacques cannot touch them). The subtext for this is the Church’s official actual position on apparitions, miracles, and exorcisms: They are hesitant to confirm anything, and want to suggest just enough so that believers can maintain their faith. It is an elegant reversal, since the Church takes the role of the skeptic. Indeed, Jacques’ colleagues in the investigation include a psychiatrist, a theologian, and a priest—all of whom have doubts about Anna. As the film continues, Jacques breaks away from them since he suspects Anna’s troubled past led to her present situation.

Giannoli trusts the material and characters to avoid any theatrics. The Apparition never shows anything supernatural, and Jacques’ investigation has just enough detail to keep things ambiguous. There is some suspense—Jacques may be a journalist, but here he essentially functions as a detective—except the film declines to heighten that feel over more subdued, character-driven moments. Anna tells Jacques, “You’re not like the others,” and these frequent, provocative statements help Jacques lower his guard. We get snippets of Jacques’ personal life, which only show how the investigation consumes him. The same can be said of Anna, who does indeed have people in her circle who use her (we see her likeness sold as trinkets in the town’s gift shops). 

This grappling with faith—conducted quietly by people who share nothing but mutual respect—is where the The Apparition finds its heart. The film ends in a perfunctory way, with the introduction of some answers that are ultimately dismissed. Jacques begins the film by confessing he is only a lapsed Catholic. By the end, he is not ready to return to mass, but Anna’s faith in him moves him to become a better man. This is no meager achievement for a modern film, so just like those who regularly pray, viewers with patience just might be rewarded.

The Apparition opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.