This is a very long film. If you go to this and it’s a late show (for example, 9pm), don’t be surprised to glance at your watch in horror several hours later and see that it says 6am. The slightly pregnant woman beside me was ready to give birth as we emerged days later. The film is split into chapters, and my friend Ashley inadvertently summed up what everyone was feeling when he gasped “no more chapters” near the end, when it was unclear whether the film would actually finish or carry on. Thankfully, the credits then rolled. I must admit I did have a cinematic panic when we were about seven chapters in, afraid that there would be as many sections to the film as there were books in the Bible. That said, this is also a really good film, so the length and the slow pace only hindered what is a compelling story, beautifully shot and extremely well-acted.
The film starts in war-torn Syria, with the Muslim call to prayers sounding in the background, serving as a stark juxtaposition to the Holy Mary religious tourism scenes to come. A Mel Gibson lookalike trots off to the Vatican, to be brought in on an inquiry into one of these apparitions. The church has a process (which can take hundreds of years) to determine whether these apparitions are real or not, as it would be mortifying for them to endorse a sham. Historically, these visions happen at times of change, and serve as theological comfort blankets, the equivalent of those “Keep Calm and Drink Gin” posters of today, helping people navigate transformation serenely and stoically. In this case, the Church must contend with the fact that a priest has gone rogue, a girl is having visions and has now been raised to celebrity status with busloads of believers making a pilgrimage to touch her.
The protagonist goes to a town in the south of France, and we see Anna, with her perfectly beatific smile and enormous, captivating eyes. Her face alone is enough to convince anyone that she’s telling the truth, although the fact that she keeps saying that she’s not a liar somewhat hurts her case.
The investigation begins. The commission includes theologians, psychologists and our Mel Gibson doppelganger, and they question the girl. We meet a creepy priest, and another creepy priest (who shares the same blood type as Christ, interestingly enough), and everyone’s rational sceptical brain groans at the thought of another film with a cliched paedophilic element. But, praise be, this film never goes there. It muddies the line between science and faith as best it can without upsetting either side. In doing so it, completely avoids the mental health/religious visitation aspect, which I appreciated, because this has been done to death and isn’t useful in this film. Giannoli treats the central question of the film as a murder mystery, where we are on the edge of our seats (albeit for 14+ hours). The problem with this approach, however, is that we never really get to the bottom of the truth about religion, and the film almost turns into an episode of Columbo (except the revelation here is framed in biblical terms). But at least it gets solved, so have faith and go and have a Holy See.