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"Pareidolia" is a word that refers to our ability to render significant shapes out of vague stimuli. If you remember that image of the supposed face on Mars, that's an example of pareidolia The same goes for the devil cloud in 9/11 photos, Mother Theresa's noggin in a cinnamon bun, or the Virgin Mary's face on a grilled cheese sandwich.
It's a relevant word for The Virgin, the Copts, and Me, a documentary which centers on a famous 1968 apparition of the Virgin Mary in Zeitoun, Egypt. Hundreds of thousands claim to have seen her in a haze of light atop a church. At one point in the film we see a video of a Virgin Mary apparition taken by cell phone. There's something there in that diaphanous blue light that seems to be human. It's a bit uncanny even if it's out of focus.
The Virgin, the Copts and Me (La Vierge, les Coptes et Moi)
In a lot of ways, out of focus describes The Virgin, the Copts, and Me. In terms of tone, it initially reminded me of a piece of long-form magazine journalism, the kind you might find in The New Yorker or Harper's. We learn about the apparition of the Virgin Mary and the religious population of Egypt. Both Muslims and Copts (Egyptian Christians) claim to have the seen the Virgin Mary in Zeitoun, and we learn about the divisions between these religious populations despite a shared country and a shared holy experience.
And like a piece of magazine journalism, embedded in that is the writer as entry point: Namir Abdel Messeeh. The film opens with him, his girlfriend, and his family watching the apparition of the Virgin Mary. Messeeh is a skeptic Egyptian living in France, a fitting outsider for these sorts of cultural and religious explorations. He decides to learn more about the apparition itself. The film functions as an examination of this moment of revelation (or mass pareidolia) as well as a personal journey about cultural roots.
What struck me early on about the documentary is that it unfolds like a narrative film. There aren't talking heads or the usual signifiers of a documentary. As scenes play out, the principle subjects don't acknowledge the camera crew. It's as if we're watching refined versions of the real event or, in the case of the initial viewing of the apparition, a restaged version of an incident. It's not really a good thing or bad thing, but an notable stylistic choice. It's a reshaping of experience. Maybe it's a fitting one given where the film eventually goes.
As Messeeh tries to understand the apparition, he learns of speculation about it being a politically engineered event. It doesn't get delved into too far, though. Another thread of the film involves Messeeh's calls to his producer. He needs more time and more money to complete the film, though the documentary seems to slacken as more time goes on.
Somewhere around the midpoint, the taut, crafted, and well-shaped form of the magazine journalism piece is abandoned. It's there that Messeeh leaves Egypt to visit his mother's side of the family in a small, poor village. We've gone from a film about the Virgin Mary to one about getting in touch with your own heritage. It's a bit diffuse and yet still pretty interesting. And it's actually presaged by earlier scenes where Messeeh's mother forbids him to visit her family and film them. Why? I'm not sure other than the fact they're poor. The fact she tells him not to do it so much made me think he was going to do it -- the old Chekhov line about the gun, but this time with family.
All the while, the film continues to play out a lot like a narrative film, though now with mild acknowledgement of the fact it's a documentary. In one scene, Messeeh lets his grandmother look at a boom mic, though a shot or two later we go back to the narrative film presentation. His interactions with his mother actually feel like a narrative film as well, particularly as she becomes a greater presence in what's being documented.
Even though The Virgin, the Copts, and Me does lose its focus midway through, it still moves along. It's almost like we've hopped into a second movie that's tangentially related to the first -- we've gone from macro to micro, from hundreds of thousands to dozens. There's talk of the apparition of the Virgin Mary, and it's in this part of the film we see the cell phone video I mentioned at the beginning. Watching it, I could make out a sort of head and shoulders and the movement of hands.
Eventually, though, The Virgin, the Copts, and Me starts to draw separate concerns together. It's not as clean as a magazine piece or as even as shaped a narrative film, but it's always a fun watch. It's like we go from precision to blurriness to focus, all to arrive at a moment of understanding.
Part of me does wish the film had stayed with it initial exploration of the Copts in Egypt and how they interact with the much larger Muslim population. It would also be fascinating to explore whether or not the apparition was a political fabrication, or maybe just a moment of mass delusion brought on by massive political unrest in the country. We'd lose the personal journey and the family connection, and there's no guarantee we'd have gained any facts. We'd also lose the film's sudden moment of clarity, a moment when, finally, there's a recognizable shape in the clouds.