Xavier Giannoli’s “The Apparition” begins in the Middle East with a blinding light. It is not that of a religious apparition but a bomb that leaves war correspondent Jacques (Vincent Lindon, “The Measure of Man,” “Rodin,” “Welcome”) dazed and deaf in one ear and his photographer and best friend dead. The latter spent his whole life trying to prove the violence and madness of men through his photos, Jacques says later. Now he has proved it with his death.
Humbled, guilt-ridden and deflated, Jacques returns from the Middle East to France, boards himself up in his home and then accepts a mission from the Vatican, to head an canonical investigation into the claims made by a young woman, Anna (Galatéa Bellugi “Keeper,” “Heal The Living”), living in south-east France, that the Virgin Mary has appeared to her, pleading that mankind should aid those suffering.
What follows is a kind of pilgrim’s progress, where Jacques, while investigating Anna’s claims, discovers a larger miracle: the capacity of men and women not only for violence and madness but love and self-sacrifice.
Of all the films screening at the 2018 UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, which kicks off Jan. 18 in Paris, none have maybe been licensed to more international territories than “The Apparition,” whose world sales are handled by Memento Films Intl.
Memento Films Distribution will release the film, produced by Curiosa Films and Fidélité Films, in France in February. In the run-up to the Rendez-Vous, Giannoli talked in detail to Variety about “The Apparition,” Christian love, Vincent Lindon as an actor, and cinema as incarnation.
In its widest sense, the real miracle in the film, which Jacques battles if not to explain but finally at least to substantiate, may not be the claimed appearance of the Virgin Mary but man’s capacity, in one and the same world, for both violence and madness and altruistic love and self-sacrifice. Would you agree?
Jacques is a war reporter. He knows the madness of men, the violence in the world. He isn’t a Christian, but his investigation will lead him to meet a young religious girl who has dedicated her life to God since she claimed to have had an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Even non-believers cannot help but be touched by this message of Christian love which invites us to reach out and help those who suffer, now more than ever. Pope Francis’ latest speeches regarding migrants and blind consumerism go for me beyond a Christian message: He speaks like a left-leaning person who wants to believe in man, in his generosity and mutual aid, despite the raging fires of the modern world. What sense is there to this world if we let our fellow men die? Pursuing his investigation, my character will discover the sacred dimension of human life, beyond any religious message. Jacques is searching for meaning, like all of us. I love his essential doubts, I think they humanize him. That’s why one of Jacques’ last responses in the film is: “I don’t know.” Above all else, the film is an investigation about a mystery: Is this young woman who claims to have had an apparition lying? But the factual, procedural investigation opens up to another dimension.
In terms of direction, the film seems a journey – in individual scenes, its story arc – from darkness towards light, and from enclosure – mental, physical, emotional – to openness, both physical, in the magnificent landscape, and mental, in Jacques’ determination not to come to prejudiced conclusions. This, I presume, was totally conscious….
For me, cinema is spectacle, the largest spectacle of our lives. I have no wish to give ground regarding a film’s psychological demands or spectacle. If that ambition is untenable, all the better. I try. I risk that in every film. It’s not a calculation or a decision. It’s an instinct, forged by contact with films which have marked me, beginning with the American cinema which obsesses me. The dramatic and aesthetic arc of the film is totally conscious. From the Vatican to a little French town then a Middle East desert, it follows the journey of a man who finds his limits. Jacques is a journalist, a figure of the modern world who needs concrete, visible proof, but finds himself in a world where proof and images just don’t function: that of faith.
You incorporate into “The Apparition” key New Testament beats: Chapters, a blinding light, a mission, the doubting witness, a test, a fast. What was your aim in doing this?
I started off making avery long documentary investigation into the secret milieu of canonical investigations. I’ve tried to structure the film in chapters to remind the audience that this is above all a fable. My work as a director has tried, in contrast, to give a documentary realism to the fable. That is, I think, a poetic contradiction which is coherent with a project that is at once both contemporary and turns on timeless questions posed by the Gospels. I don’t want to be disrespectful but you can read the Gospels like Shakespeare and see that the authors of the texts have understood a lot of things about the destiny of men: Desire and death, violence, the sacred, the need for love and consolation. The narrative begins with a bomb explosion, in the here and now, and finishes in the same serene desert at the beginning of the tale.
What other artistic decisions influenced you with “The Apparition”?
I needed the camera to suggest a sense of grace in the most banal of situations such as scenes where the girl who claims to have seen the Virgin walks along a road with cars speeding by, in a humdrum suburb of a small French town. Or in a scene where she sits in a shopping mall and looks at the shop windows and people going by. Suddenly – because she’s someone who claims to have been in contact with God – simple reality becomes strange. All the film looks for that, this tension between grace and simple reality, the weight of bodies and the desire for spiritual elevation, the here and now and eternity, lies and truth. I’ve had the good luck to work with an extraordinary cinematographer, Eric Gautier (“Into the Wild,” “On the Road”). All our work focused on finding this arc between the real and mystery.
You direct one of France’s most-respected actors and a promising up-and-coming talent. How did you direct Vincent Lindon and then Lindon and Galatéa Bellugi in the scenes they have together?
Vincent is a great actor and, like all great actors, first of all he has this strange force of incarnation. With him, everything becomes physical and carnal. He was an obvious choice to play the character of a sceptic investigator in a world which wants to believe in the supernatural. For the character played by Galatéa Bellugi, I wanted to buck the cliché of the “divine” face of a girl who has seen the Virgin. She’s a modern-day girl, a novice in a convent. But since her character claims to have received a supernatural apparition. she has a strange aura which might come from this situation or the actress herself or both. Vincent and Galatéa kept their distance during the shoot, which made the scenes between them even tenser. At its heart, in its relation to the invisible and the incarnation of an idea, cinema has something religious about it. And actors are key to that incarnation. What still shocks me, above all with actors like Vincent and Galatéa, is their capacity to creative a physical correlative for any situation, even the most “incredible.” It may be for that reason that I felt such a need to put the bodies of my characters to the test, as if their physical suffering were the encounter of the actor and the character, that of emotion and the flesh.
How, if at all, would you fit “The Apparition” into your “oeuvre” to date?
I don’t really think about this kind of question. I write, try to find the money to make the films…. But after watching my movies I realize that there are themes, situations and emotions that re-appear in them. For example, in “In the Beginning,” “Marguerite” or “The Apparition,” the characters want to “believe,” to find themselves in an illusion. That has to do with the question of faith. But also with cinematographic illusion itself. And no doubt also with our need for human truth in a world of lies, our quest for sense in an absurd existence of poor mortals who have such need for love and elevation. I ask these questions in this film more than ever before. I need to tell stories, to give them a reality and thanks to cinema, that reality takes on another dimension.
Photos: Vincent Lindon (top) as Jacques; Galatéa Bellugi, playing Anna; director Xavier Giannoli (below).