Music is Religious Experience in Apparition of the Eternal Church


When I got in touch with Paul Festa to find out if I might take a look at his 2006 film, Apparition of the Eternal Church, in which a group of people listen to a piece of organ music by Olivier Messiaen and describe their reaction, I introduced myself as a film critic first and then, more importantly, as a full-blown Messiaen obsessive. “Join the club,” came his knowing reply.

Transcendently lucid yet rhythmically abstruse, equally devoted to Catholicism and birdsong, the music of Messiaen (1908–1992) beggars description and tends to blow minds. Wrapped in headphones, Festa’s colorful consortium of academics (Harold Bloom) and drag queens (Jackie Beat), the fabulous (Justin Bond) and the freaky (Squeaky Blonde), playwrights (Eisa Davis) and performance artists (Shanti Carson) come up with, cumulatively, what may be the best description of the Messiaen effect on record: “church or zombies, Bach with dyspepsia, being fucked by light, oh my God, autism, magma and miasma, my mother’s soundtrack, spiked wheels, oh my God, a swarm of bugs in Egypt, Yom Kippur, farther out than DNA, balls to the wall, oh my God . . .”

More than a mash note to this nonpareil maestro, Apparition circles around the mystery of music and subjectivity and touches down on a head-spinning array of topics, from how to transpose religious values into secular sustenance to S&M mummification. It’s a bravura performance, not to be missed on Wednesday, February 27, when Apparition screens with live organ accompaniment at St. Bartholomew’s Church as part of a centenary celebration program that includes the New York premiere of Messiaen’s “Fantaisie” for violin and piano, with Festa himself manning the bow.