Galatea Bellugi plays a young woman at the center of a religious conflict in “The Apparition.” (Courtesy Music Box Films)

‘Apparition’ a worthy, if not thrilling, religious mystery

A supernaturally themed mystery set entirely and refreshingly in the natural world, the French drama “The Apparition” succeeds more than fails as it presents its story of two individuals searching, in highly different ways, for the truth. But shortcomings as a mystery thriller substantially diminish the impact of the movie, which opens Friday at the Embarcadero.

Writer-director Xavier Giannoli, who made the worthy Florence Foster Jenkins-inspired “Marguerite,” has, this time, created a more serious-minded but equally humane film — a religious procedural, psychological drama and condemnation of Catholic Church corruption.

Jacques (Vincent Lindon), a middle-aged French journalist, returns home from the Middle East, traumatized by a colleague’s death there. Needing a change of focus, Jacques accepts an investigative assignment that involves heading a Vatican commission tasked with evaluating the legitimacy of a young woman’s claim to have seen an “apparition” of the Virgin Mary.

Anna (Galatea Bellugi), the 18-year-old convent novice making the claim, is a beatific, martyrdom-obsessed orphan who grew up in foster care. The corrupt Father Borrodine (Patrick d’Assumcao) has become her protector. Shady marketing ace Anton Meyer (Anatole Taubman) has turned her into a media sensation.

Secrets abound.

A skeptic in an environment where terms like “supernatural event” are common, Jacques immerses himself in the rational aspects of the case, interviewing people from Anna’s past. Anna, seeing a fellow truth-seeker, is drawn to Jacques. But while Jacques views Anna likewise, his research findings undermine her credibility.

Giannoli doesn’t say whether God exists. More wisely, he explores the workings of belief and skepticism, and considers whether faith in something nonexistent, if it eases suffering, might not be wrong. After the credits roll, the film stays with you.

While not without tropes — a purportedly holy blood-stained cloth among them — the movie eschews the supernatural silliness (CGI effects included) that generally accompanies stories about Christianity and divine encounters. Its most heavenly scenes, some exquisite, feature feathers the nuns use to make bedding.

With little dialogue, Lindon, an actor with a great, grizzled face, conveys Jacques’ inner struggle with quiet intensity. He carries us through the story, even when trivialities and excess threads bog it down.

The problem involves too frequent narrative failings. Filled with more characters and events than Giannoli can efficiently manage, the story isn’t sharp, original or penetrating enough to justify the movie’s 144-miute running time. Its resolution is a letdown.

Anna, while well played by Bellugi, is forced, by the story’s mystery element, to be opaque. We can’t get a satisfying grip on her.

But d’Assumcao, whose somewhat sleazy Borrodine is presented with affecting humanity by Giannoli, comes across as a once-decent man who has lost his way.

With its release before fall’s heavier hitters, the movie warrants a look. But sharper writing and tighter editing could have made it more than barely satisfying art-house viewing.

The Apparition
Two and a half stars
Starring: Vincent Lindon, Galatea Bellugi, Patrick d’Assumcao, Anatole Taubman
Written and directed by: Xavier Giannoli
Not rated
Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes

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