Films about canonical investigations aren’t exactly a genre, but neither are they as rare as The Apparition seems to think. In an interview from Filmfest Munchen on the Music Box DVD, director Xavier Giannoli states that he made the film to figure out what the film was about and calls a film director someone who makes an investigation.
I don’t object to that analogy. Writing, film-making, and all art-making can be as much a process of discovery as one of proclamation. But when this attitude is attached to an artifact where the subject is one of religious faith, it can result in making the creator blind to some of the assumptions that underlie his work. Giannoli, for example, states that the film illustrates the “fact” that one can’t know the truth, contrasting those who “chose” to believe with “fanatics” who claim one “must” believe.
I would counter that the agnostic, the one who is against knowledge, is equally dogmatic that one must not believe. If one cannot know the truth than the choice to believe is always contra-rational. Stated differently, insisting that one cannot prove truth is a different proposition from claiming one cannot know it. Being against compelling religious adherence is not the same thing as denying the possibility of genuine conviction that often underlies it.
I stress this point because I genuinely like mystery and ambiguity in art, but I sometimes think that wishy-washiness is mystery’s less accomplished cousin. When the investigative journalist, Jacques, is asked at the beginning of the film whether or not he is a believer, he says, “No…I mean maybe there’s something.” That’s the movie in a nutshell.
Jacques is hired by the Vatican to look into the case of a young woman who claims to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary. This assignment is because of his reputation as an investigative journalist, and the hiring of an outsider is, one imagines, supposed to signal the Vatican’s integrity in wanting an unbiased and careful investigation. While this is an effective tool in providing outsiders with a surrogate to help them learn about a world they may not know, it does end up implying that those from with the church who make such investigations are closed-minded, ignorant, or agenda-driven. Even if you’re not Roman Catholic (I’m not), that’s a bit condescending, isn’t it?
At one point a guide tells Jacques that the Roman Catholic Church would rather let many authentic miracles go unacknowledged than to endorse one that is a sham. This is stated as they walk through boxes of reports, echoing the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and implying that the main reason truth is not more widely known or considered is that those in power keep a lid on it for their own purposes.
The Apparition is closer to an agnostic film than an atheistic one. It does find a skillful way of resolving the immediate narrative issue of whether or not the young woman is lying while not necessarily making that answer stand in as a repudiation or endorsement of all religious faith. I liked it for that reason, even if I was sometimes put off by the attitude conveyed in Giannoli’s interview that these questions or ideas were new in the history of cinema.
I’ve noticed in my career that the breach between Christianity and arts (particularly in America) makes those who live in either world less informed (contemporaneously and/or historically) of the other. That can result in (usually young) Christians who consume or study art acting like they are the first person in the world to have seen a Bergman film or meditate on the cultural impact of The Rolling Stones. But it’s also the case that art makers can sometimes come across as implying they are the first to have noticed that there are large swaths of culture whose lives are informed by religious faith — that Christianity is a living faith and not simply an historical remnant.
The Apparition will be available on DVD and Blu-ray beginning January 22, 2019.