Xavier Giannoli’s The Apparition joins Jessica Hausner’s 2009 Lourdes and Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross on a short list of 21st-century European films turning a curious eye on devout Catholic piety in an increasingly secular world.

Like Stations of the Cross, The Apparition focuses on a deeply devout young girl, a mystic who may be a victim soul, chosen by God to suffer for the benefit of others. Like Lourdes, the protagonist is a skeptic caught up in a popular Marian phenomenon, wondering if miracles really happen.

Vincent Lindon plays Jacques Mayano, a renowned investigative journalist who receives an unexpected call from the Vatican.

An official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wants Jacques to take part in a canonical investigation into a purported Marian apparition and the devotion that has grown around the visionary, a young novice named Anna (Galatéa Bellugi).

As practically every important word in that last sentence must be explained to him, Jacques may seem an unusual choice. But he is a man in need of direction — he’s reeling from the loss of his best friend and photographer in a violent incident on assignment in the Middle East — and takes the job.

Lourdes touched on the question of authenticating miracles, but The Apparition focuses on the Church’s investigative process to a greater degree than any film I’ve seen. (The film to which it most begs comparison or contrast might be Agnieszka Holland’s 1999 film The Third Miracle, starring Ed Harris, unseen by me.)

Jacques’ fellow investigators include a genial theologian, Stéphane Mornay (Gérard Dessalles), who makes no secret of his skepticism of the Medjugorje visionaries as well as Anna’s purported visions, and a psychiatrist, Dr. de Villeneuve (Elina Löwensohn), whose function is to assess Anna’s psychological well-being but who clearly wants to believe in Anna’s miracle.

De Villeneuve isn’t the only one. Anna’s spiritual guide and mentor, a Franciscan priest named Father Borrodine (Patrick d’Assumçao), is so devoted to his young charge and her calling that he has gone off the reservation against the local bishop, despite the suspension of his faculties to say Mass.

There’s also an ingratiatingly earnest Catholic media figure named Anton Meyer (Anatole Taubman) whose celebration of Anna is at once exploitative and utterly sincere. And, of course, there are the throngs of pilgrims flocking to glimpse the visionary and the sight of the apparition, and also, of course, to buy religious trinkets: rosaries, crucifixes, statues of Mary, even votive candles with stickers of Anna’s face.

Anna herself appears to have no wish for celebrity. She has a transparent, self-possessed quality that suggests genuineness and candor. Her message from the Blessed Virgin is simple: Mary hears the cries of the world and wants people to learn to give to one another, to help the poor and suffering. She also wants Anna to have a house of prayer built for her Son, presumably at the site of the apparition.

As a novice, Anna works with the sisters making feather bedding to support the convent, and when necessary, she offers simple, sincere words to the crowds who come to see her. After her interview with the investigative team, in a moment witnessed neither by Jacques nor any other human being, she kneels in composed prayer on a restroom floor: a token of the authenticity of her faith.

Later, after a televised interview with Meyer, we see Anna kneeling again in solitary prayer, this time on a chapel floor — but her very different posture suggests a sense of desperate pleading. One of Meyer’s questions for Anna was how she felt about Christians from all over the world coming to see her. At times Anna’s celebrity may feel like a life sentence with no hope of parole.

There are suggestions of something possibly hinky about Anna’s story. One of the most notable is a purported relic of Jesus — a bloodstained shroud that Anna is said to have received directly from the Blessed Virgin.

Stéphane, the theologian, calls this “a total contradiction with the tradition of apparitions,” since, he says, Mary “has always been an image of love, kindness and understanding. She can’t be associated with violence.”

Stéphane’s reasoning is simultaneously understated and wrong. On the one hand, Mary is certainly associated with her Son’s passion and death. (Beyond that, sacred art is full of images of the Blessed Virgin crushing the serpent’s head and even beating up the devil.)

On the other hand, what Stéphane should have said is that Marian apparitions do not traditionally dispense physical relics. St. Juan Diego’s tilma was miraculously marked with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but the tilma itself was made of Mexican hemp like any number of tilmas worn by Juan Diego’s contemporaries.

Resisting Stéphane’s skepticism, de Villeneuve suggests that the cloth may be “a new symbol.” The theological implications of this suggestion aren’t explored; more glaringly, no one asks just how many bloodstained shrouds of Jesus there can be.

Scientific tests suggest a connection, of a sort, to the Shroud of Turin and the Shroud of Oviedo (or Sudarium), as well as the Holy Tunic of Argenteuil. Those three relics aren’t in competition — the Shroud of Turin and the Sudarium are considered complementary relics that covered the same person — but it’s hard to see how Anna’s shroud could be added to the mix.

All of this is greatly complicated by Jacques’ investigation into Anna’s complex back story: the foster families she lived with, a friend named Meriem (Alicia Hava), whom Anna knew from her foster care days, a grisly murder, a man in prison, and more.

These subplots take up too much time for too little payoff. By the time Jacques comes face-to-face with a person who has, in a way, the most crucial story to tell, neither the film nor its protagonist have the time or interest to really explore that story or that character.

The resolution is clever, giving both secular and religious viewers something to hold onto, but unsatisfying in giving short shrift to the final piece of its complicated puzzle.

The story is also, to an extent, about Jacques’s working through his grief and depression from the killing of his friend. The opening shots of a close hotel room with heavy room-darkening curtains drawn against the Middle-Eastern sun suggest the isolation and oppressive narrowness of depression. The final image, a wide outdoor shot with the protagonist standing in an immense Middle-Eastern landscape, conveys liberation and open possibilities.

Along the way, there’s a suggestion that perhaps Mary takes an interest in Jacques’s healing and sends him an enigmatic message of hope. Does the Blessed Mother see, or is she blind? The Apparition answers many questions, but remains agnostic on that one.

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Caveat Spectator: Some disturbing images and themes; fleeting medical nudity. Mature teens and up.