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Film review: The Apparition, and Apostasy

03 August 2018

Stephen Brown views current film releases

Vincent Lindon as Jacques and Galatéa Bellugi as Anna in The Apparition

Vincent Lindon as Jacques and Galatéa Bellugi as Anna in The Apparition

APPARITIONS, though only occasional, are still viable experiences. “You have to start by filming the appearances of reality to attempt to attain a state of grace.” So says Xavier Giannoli, the director of The Apparition (Cert. 12A). Filmmakers know only too well that things aren’t always what they seem to us as we watch their magic.

Here, 16-year-old Anna (Galatéa Bellugi) claims that the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared to her in a small French village. Crowds flock to the site, all but overwhelming the girl with their needs. The church authorities feel that they have no alternative but to set up a canonical investigation. To this end, they enlist Jacques (Vincent Lindon), a war correspondent, to test the reliability of Anna’s story.

From an ecclesiastical point of view, there is the necessity to eliminate hoaxes; but even if Anna’s apparition were authenticated, it could pose a hindrance to faith which is of a different order from scientific verification. Giannoli himself, in an interview, questions what would constitute proof. “We won’t find the meaning of life with algorithms, smartphones, economic promises, or political illusions.”

Jacques is the director’s alter ego, reflecting his own religious search as he humbly desires to sort out what is true and what isn’t. The puzzle is what would be appropriate criteria for assessing this. He carries his own pain and guilt for a photographer colleague who has been killed while they were covering a desert war. Just as pictures can deliver truth through images that lie too deep for words, Jacques strives to match this by never just settling for people’s surface appearances, tacitly intuiting Pascal’s notion that the heart has reasons that reason cannot know.

The film is split into half a dozen chapter headings, one of which echoes this idea: “Souls have their own world”. This is particularly so in his experience of Anna. Clearly devout, but now unwillingly thrust into celebrity status, she is grateful for the space that the journalist provides to tell her story. In an effort to empathise, he literally stands under her and, in the process, protects her from the sharks and charlatans (not that they always know that they are) wanting a piece of her.

There are characters in this film, as in life, who at first sight may manifest themselves as sinister or at least manipulative, only for us to be taken in the course of the scenario into their very souls, revealing a profundity hitherto obscured. Key to all this is noting where the characters look for inspiration, let alone insight. Anna’s eyes are turned skywards, but an alternative spirituality is to be found among those who find grace here on earth by probing the veneer.

The Apparition, underlined by Arvo Pärt’s ethereal soundtrack, suggests that both approaches contain truth. The visual clue to all this is a burnt-out, broken Icon of Kazan, which Jacques happens upon. It depicts Mary as Mother of God, under whose protection we can attain, in Giannoli’s words, “a state of grace”, and whereby truth that sets us free.

Molly Wright as Alex in Apostasy

IN APOSTASY (PG), a GP warns that replacing blood transfusions with substitute treatments that Jehovah’s Witnesses favour could put the life of Alex (Molly Wright), an anaemic daughter, at risk. Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), the mother, retorts: “That’s just your opinion.” The line has wider ramifications in a world increasingly disrespectful of objectivity or truth.

By staying almost exclusively within the confines of this religious community — the busy world literally passes them by on the adjacent motorway — one begins to understand how it all seems perfectly reasonable to its adherents. The world is not to be trusted. Only Witnesses are right — unless, that is, they go astray, like Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), Ivanna’s other child, who falls pregnant to her Muslim boyfriend. For this, the male Elders “disassociate” her from their church until she satisfactorily confesses the error of her ways. Ivanna and Alex have to break off contact with Luisa as a spur to repentance.

The film is directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s Witness. While he shows us aspects of that faith which many would find unacceptable, there is a lingering affection for the strength of communal feeling and the courage of their convictions. Set in his native Oldham and filming in a now defunct Kingdom Hall, it feels entirely authentic. Closing credits, though, acknowledge that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Governing Body has not endorsed this portrayal of them.

In a sense, the film could be a reflection on any set of beliefs — political, social, moral or religious — that denies autonomy to its followers. Apostasy, however, is neither polemical nor indignant, and is the better for it. What it lacks is progress. Siobhan Finneran (best known for roles in Happy Valley, Downton Abbey, etc.) has been justifiably praised for her performance as a woman of divided loyalties. I didn’t think that she was always helped by a script that came down mainly on the side of what her faith taught her rather than the real anguish of having daughters with substantial problems; nor was Alex’s medical condition given the screen time to enable us to empathise enough with her growing struggle in upholding convictions regarding transfusions.

More emphasis is given to being knowledgeable about scripture. Rarely is the Witnesses’ fundamentalism questioned by anyone other than Muslims whom they are trying to convert, using Urdu. Mainstream Christians don’t really appear here. For Luisa, being treated as she is by her erstwhile community becomes a wake-up call. She questions the validity of its New World Bible translation in respect of what is said about blood, and a God who will destroy all but those who are true believers.

All in all, it is a rather gloomy film. Acknowledging the influence of the Belgian artist Michael Borremans, the cinematographer, Adam Scarth, uses a limited palette to ram home the story’s tragic theme. The sun never shines on anyone, righteous or not, in Oldham, not even God’s chosen few.

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