Director XAVIER GIANNOLI probed into his own religious beliefs when making his latest film, as he tells
The filmmaker talks about his latest release, The Apparition.
Sometimes directors use films as a form of therapy. Take Xavier Giannoli. For years, the filmmaker suffered a crisis of faith, not knowing how he felt about religion. To exorcise his demons, Giannoli turned to his craft, making a movie that delves deep into the strange world of Marian apparitions (supernatural sightings of the Virgin Mary) and those who investigate the phenomenon.
“I knew that the Church sometimes held investigative commissions on alleged supernatural events such as miraculous healings or apparitions,” the French director says, discussing his latest film, The Apparition. “Then, one day, I read an article about these mysterious ‘canonical investigations’. These commissions aren’t necessarily made up of religious people. There are doctors or historians who are asked by a bishop to gather eyewitness accounts and precise events so as to determine where it is an imposture... or not. The point of view of a thorough documentary investigation into the supposed proof of the existence of God corresponded to the essential doubt I felt in my life.”
By the time Giannoli put the article down, there was a lightbulb hovering over his head. He would write a script about a man who investigates an alleged sighting of the Virgin Mary in France. The investigator had to be someone who, like Giannoli, was not a theologian but was searching for the truth. “I had the idea of this journalist character who goes to investigate a seemingly unbelievable occurrence,” the director recalls. “He’s not being holier-thanthou or a cynical atheist, just a free man who wants to sort out what is true and what isn’t.”
Putting pen to paper, Giannoli fleshed out a character called Jacques, a world-weary war correspondent tasked by the Vatican to investigate a claim by teenager Anna that she saw the Virgin Mary. Like Jacques, Giannoli had to go on a fact-finding mission to understand the blind devotion of believers as he wrote the storyline for The Apparition. “I had discussions with priests,” he recalls. “One day, I asked one of them: ‘When you die, will you be less afraid, because you believe in eternal life?’ There was a pause, then he replied: ‘As I close my eyes, first I’ll tell myself: I hope I wasn’t wrong...’ That deeply moved me.”
Like a scene out of a Dan Brown movie, Giannoli also dove into Church archives to study the history of apparitions. “I found a list of apparitions ‘authenticated’ by the Vatican like Bernadette Soubirous [who put the small town of Lourdes on the map],” reveals the director. “There are dozens of others before and after her. I found the photo of a young visionary with an electroencephalogram cap on her head and her hands joined in prayer while her brain’s electric waves were analysed to test whether she was telling the truth. There was a strange poetry in that photo, as if technology were capable of probing the mysteries of the soul.”
After extensive research, Giannoli came to the conclusion that the Church would rather not authenticate any apparitions. “I think they are a hindrance to them,” says the director. “Faith doesn’t need proof or it’s no longer faith.”
When it came to cast members, Giannoli managed to land his first choice for Jacques, Vincent Lindon. Finding an actress to play Anna meant watching hours of screen tests, though. As soon as Galatea Bellugi popped up on screen, Giannoli knew he had struck cinematic gold.
“I was told that she had acted in a few films but didn’t really know if she wanted to become an actress, although she has unique presence,” the director recalls. “Every day I spent with her on the shoot was a moment of grace. She is both familiar and enigmatic, everything a director dreams of.”
With the right cast and storyline in place, Giannoli was able to create a film that has the character of a spiritual journey for both him and the audience. “It’s very important for me that cinema is a spectacle,” he says. “The spectacle of our lives as we search for ourselves.”
The Apparition is in cinemas from 3 August. See Pierre’s review on page 84
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