Ambitious and well-executed, "The Apparition" is a kind of ecclesiastical thriller. An involving and intelligent entertainment, if it ends up somewhat less than the sum of its parts, it's not for lack of attempting something different.
Best known for 2015's similarly unsettled "Marguerite," about an opera singer who didn't know how bad she was, writer-director Xavier Giannoli has taken as his theme another story outside the bounds of accepted reality: the alleged appearance of the Virgin Mary in a rural French town.
And just as "Marguerite" benefited by the César-winning performance of Catherine Frot (in a role Meryl Streep took in the English language "Florence Foster Jenkins"), Giannoli has called forth strong performances from a pair of actors, the established Vincent Lindon and the young Galatéa Bellugi.
Not in a rush and, at 2 hours and 24 minutes, longer than it needs to be, "The Apparition" more than takes its time in establishing Lindon's character, journalist Jacques Mayano.
On assignment in the Middle East, Jacques is introduced in a situation we've seen a lot on film, and in life: He's in shock over the recent combat death of a close friend and colleague, a photographer killed in an explosion.
Back in France, suffering from worsening hearing, Jacques sinks into PTSD despair. Then he gets a call from a French Catholic bishop in Rome asking for his presence.
The cleric, as it turns out, admires Jacques' work and wants him to be in charge of a canonical investigation, one of the commissions regularly set up by the church to determine whether a claim of a miraculous sighting is genuine or a hoax.
Although some scenarios — the 19th century case of Bernadette of Lourdes is the most famous — are legitimized, others are denied. And, Jacques is told, the church leans toward saying visions are not real. As director Giannoli said in an interview, "faith doesn't need proof, or it's no longer faith."
The case Jacques agrees to help investigate involves a situation that began two years earlier when a then-16-year-old schoolgirl claimed that the Virgin appeared to her in a field.
Not only is the girl, Anna, now a novice in a convent, her entire small town has been taken over by busloads of the faithful who flock to the place to see her and perhaps be helped. So many are showing up that the local police have asked the church to conduct an investigation.
As photographed by top cinematographer Eric Gautier ("Into the Wild," "The Motorcycle Diaries") with production design by Riton Dupire-Clément, "The Apparition" is especially good at providing a convincing re-creation of the on-site experience, of showing what it looks like when a village is overrun with seekers and the wide variety of knickknacks with Anna's likeness they eagerly buy.
Anna, known as "the visionary," appears frequently in public, surrounded by both the faithful and a retinue of protectors. Unnervingly played by Bellugi as part ordinary teen in jeans and hoodie, part otherwordly presence with huge, watchful eyes, Anna seems both of this world and of the next, which is likely part of the point.
As Jacques meets his fellow commission members, including a psychiatrist and a theologian, they, and we, get to meet the people closest to Anna.
First among these are Father Borrodine (Patrick d'Assumcao), the local parish priest who is protectiveness itself, and Anton Meyer (Anatole Taubman), for whom mixing faith and business seems second nature.
Yet it's important to point out that "The Apparition" is without conventional villains, and it is stronger for it. Everyone sees Anna through their own particular prism, everyone has their own kind of sincerity, something that feels true to life.
Though her role is not the leading one, Anna is by far the most interesting person in the film, and we hunger, as Jacques does, for information about who she is, what she believes and why. The human need to have faith, our hunger for the miraculous, also gets an examination.
Unfortunately, "The Apparition" is stuck with Jacques as its protagonist, not Anna. His quest for the facts and determination not to be fooled certainly drive the plot, but his doggedness frankly gets to be tiresome.
All the attention paid to Jacques and his situation makes "The Apparition" longer than it needs to be and explains why it is better at arousing our curiosity than resolving things. The film’s ending is neatly worked out, but the ambiguity of the earlier moments holds our attention more. Sometimes it's better, as the song lyric suggests, to let the mystery be.
Language: In English, French and Italian with English subtitles
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes