By Caroline Smith
If you’re looking for an introduction to the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje and their impact on people who visit the site, then Apparition Hill (Stella Mar Films, 2016) provides an interesting entry point.
However, it’s advisable to bring along tissues because the story deals with human tragedy and is quite emotionally-affecting.
Apparition Hill is written and directed by Sean Bloomfield, a US filmmaker who has addressed the issue of apparitions before through previous projects The Triumph (2013) – which is also about Medjugorje and If Only We Had Listened (2011).
With this outing, Bloomfield concentrates on the story of seven people who have been invited to visit the site and their encounters with people they meet there, including the original witnesses.
The film begins with some background on the Medjugorje story, with a montage of news reports on the site – a village in Bosnia-Herzegovina where six children claimed to have been visited by Mary, starting in 1981.
Following this, the narrator explains that a global competition has been set up (presumably by the filmmakers) to attract people who might want to visit Medjurgorje and another montage is presented of ‘entry videos’ from around the world.
Finally, we are introduced to the (mostly American) winners – terminal cancer sufferer Holly and her husband Matt, Catholic convert Jill, who speaks of having difficulty with the role of Mary in her faith, drug addict Ryan, widower and father-of-nine Rich and atheists Mark and Peter.
From the beginning, the group faces challenges in their journey, as Holly’s health worsens, and a novena and fasting program is arranged to support her, going viral with the hashtag #novenaforholly. Although members of the group don’t meet until they arrive in Europe, it is apparent that they have all heard about Holly and are somewhat brought together by the novena experience, as even Peter comments that he sent her positive thoughts during that time.
Upon arrival in Medjugorje village, viewers are introduced to two issues which are explored throughout the film: the question of whether these phenomena are real (and scepticism around them), and the impact of faith on the lives of people who visit the site.
The latter is explored through Ben, a former-addict who is living in a religious community near the site, while the former is discussed through the group’s visit to another religious shrine, the Statue of the Risen Christ, which unexplainably emits water.
However, it is the story of faith that is reinforced throughout Apparition Hill, whether it be through the group’s meetings with the original witnesses Ivanka, Mirjana, Jacov, Marija, Vicka and Ivan with Mirjana in particular offering down-to-earth comments on prayer and belief or through the growth and fellowship of the group itself.
We follow the journey of Holly and Matt, who are both struggling with her illness and concerns about their children in Washington. Ryan’s experience of withdrawal and difficulties with addiction, and the changing scepticism of Mark and Rich.
Intersecting this is the story of Canadian Darryl, who visited Medjugorje earlier as part of his struggle to deal with the condition ALS, and who speaks to the group members via Skype about his experience.
While the film mostly focuses on the trip to Medjugorje itself, and the various reflections on apparitions, worship and adoration there, its messages of faith and fellowship follow group members upon their return, and this part carries an equal amount of value.
Overall, Apparition Hill can sometimes be confronting and is certainly an emotional film but it contains valuable lessons about friendship, support and the power of faith.