Apparition Hill, which originally debuted last May, tells the stories of seven people who entered a contest to go on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, a small town in Bosnia-Herzegovina where six alleged visionaries claim to see regular apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Millions have visited the town since the alleged apparitions began in 1981, but Medjugorje remains controversial.
The Catholic bishop of the diocese where it is located has said he does not believe anything truly supernatural is going on. Pope Francis, too, has made veiled comments that seem skeptical.
In February, however, the Pope appointed a special envoy to look after the needs of pilgrims, who continue to come in the thousands. Meanwhile, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has not pronounced one way or the other about the apparitions’ validity.
But do not let the controversy and the polarized opinions on Medjugorje dissuade you from seeing this film. This review is not an endorsement of Medjugorje; it’s an endorsement of Apparition Hill, which is everything good movie-making should be. Medjugorje itself, while interesting, is tangential to the great documentary story-telling. And those stories tell us about the love of God and His closeness to us in our struggles and our suffering.
Apparition Hill starts out with short cuts from videos contestants made on their phones in 2015 explaining why they should be chosen by director Sean Bloomfield to make the pilgrimage to Medjugorje. These takes offer our first glimpse of the seven people who will come together for a two-week pilgrimage. It tells us about their hopes, their spiritual longings and their questions. Soon, the movie transports us and we become thoroughly involved in their lives.
The pilgrims include a widower who has struggled to raise his 10 children on his own; a young husband and policeman who is an atheist; a young man in a desperate struggle with drug addiction; a young mother dying of cancer and her husband; a Catholic woman who converted to Catholicism from the Mennonite faith and who still has a problem understanding devotion to Mary; and a man from the UK who is married to a Catholic, but is agnostic.
When Holly, the woman with cancer, becomes too ill to go on the trip, the filmmakers organize a novena of praying and fasting for her and — miraculously or not — she recovers enough to go. Her story becomes the emotional heart of Apparition Hill as she comes to accept that she will soon leave her young children and her loving husband behind. She becomes radiant with love and grace as she realizes she can entrust them to Mary.
The film also profiles Darryl Bach of Glace Bay, N.S. Bach suffers from ALS and was unable to accompany the group on the pilgrimage. Instead, Stella Mar Films, which produced the documentary, flew him to Medjugorje on a separate trip, which we see in the movie. Bach did not get a healing of his disease, but we witness a transformation in his soul that leads him back to the Catholic faith he had abandoned. He died in November 2016, four months after the film debuted in his hometown.
The movie incorporates selfie-type videos of the pilgrims as they share their thoughts while alone during the trip, interviews with priests at Medjugorje, scenes of the various pilgrimage spots including several where visionaries are believed to be communicating with the Virgin Mary, and private sessions with some of the visionaries like Mirjana, who claims to have first seen Our Lady as a teenager in 1981.
Whether Medjugorje is a site of valid Marian apparitions or not, the documentary shows the value of pilgrimage, of searching for God and and how, in often surprising ways, He answers the deepest longings.
For more information about the film, go to apparitionhill.org.