In 1952, Warner Bros. released a version of “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima” that boasted, “To the best of human knowledge, and according to the testimony of 100,000 witnesses … This Is A True Story!” That film, hokey in some ways, inspirational in others, purported to be a fact-based account of a faith-based story, one that occurred in 1917 against the backdrop of a world war, wherein three Portuguese shepherd children experienced several visits by the Virgin Mary, who bestowed certain insights upon them before unleashing a spectacular solar light show so as to convince all those assembled.
Director Marco Pontecorvo revisits these events in “Fatima,” a superficially suspicious, yet ultimately accepting historical drama which arrives at a moment when faith and facts find themselves in direct opposition, when claims of “fake news” (a term that predates these miracles, popularized as far back as 1915 by Woodrow Wilson) render the very notion of “a true story” all but meaningless. The film releases in theaters and on demand amid a global crisis — not just the pandemic, but a steady, numbing attack on any form of belief that doesn’t support one’s political agendas. While not especially artful, “Fatima” honors those who stand by their convictions. That its role models are children makes the message all the more remarkable.
The film’s subject isn’t Mary’s divine revelations, but the strength of 10-year-old Lúcia (“Terminator: Dark Fate” plus-one Stephanie Gil), a devout Catholic and devoted daughter whose spiritual visions forced her to stand up to naysayers and assert her truth: that she and two younger cousins were entrusted with three divine secrets. “Why would the mother of God choose you of all people?” Lúcia was asked by peers, parents and the local priest (Joaquim de Almeida) at the time — a question that she continues to face decades later when an incredulous academic (Harvey Keitel) visits Lúcia (now played by Sônia Braga), who’s become a nun, in the convent.
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“I can only give you my testimony,” Sister Lúcia replies. “I don’t have answers for everything.” That’s a fine definition of faith, but won’t do much to impress nonbelievers, who have good reason to wonder why Mary would appear to a group of kids in Portugal of all places. (Fátima was the nearest decent-sized city, but these incidents occurred in the middle of nowhere, to a bunch of nobodies, in a way that took the Catholic church some time to embrace. A century later, Pope Francis canonized the two youngest as saints.)
By depicting the incidents of 1917 — including the visitations themselves — from young Lúcia’s point of view, the movie doesn’t leave much room for doubt. Miracles, like magic, don’t always play well on-screen since, willful suspension of disbelief aside, audiences know deep down that they’re being manipulated. As consumers of all kinds of propaganda, we’ve been conditioned to question what we see, and casting a gentle, gorgeous model (Joana Ribeiro of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”) as Mary is a risk. Many viewers will come to the film with a very different idea of this holy figure in mind, while others might have preferred to use their imaginations. Mary’s heart may be immaculate, but should she really appear so elegant? So European? So young?
After a somewhat jumbled opening, in which the narrative skips back and forth between younger and older Lúcia, audiences come to understand the complex pressures impacting this simple girl: With her older brother (João Arrais) enlisted in the war, Lúcia worries about his fate, although the country’s new Republican government — personified by an enlightened but unsympathetic mayor (Goran Višnjić) — discourages and disparages his constituents’ (in his view) ignorant adherence to religion.
When the “Lady of the Rosary” appears to Lúcia and her two young cousins, Jacinta (Alejandra Howard, a cheek-tweakingly cute Hollywood-style child actor) and Francisco (Jorge Lamelas, looking like an escapee from a Rossellini movie), in a field outside of town, the divine visitor advises them not to speak of their encounter. That very night, Jacinta spills the beans, and from then on, there’s no stopping the circus: Pilgrims come from far and wide to meet the blessed trio, while local and religious authorities, including the archbishop, try to get them to recant.
No one is more distressed than Lúcia’s mom, Maria Rosa (Lúcia Moniz, among the lesser-known names in this star-studded ensemble, yet responsible for its most impressive performance). Her disapproval creates a unique kind of tension, as Lúcia must choose which of these maternal figures to honor: her earthly mother or the Virgin Mary. The latter asks her to suffer on behalf of sinners, going so far as to reveal that hell is real — not that the terrifying CG version shown here qualifies as particularly convincing.
Perhaps the strangest choice by Pontecorvo (a DP on “Rome” and “Game of Thrones” who also happens to be the son of “The Battle of Algiers” maestro Gillo Pontecorvo) is to shoot everything — not just these visions, but the period sequences as well — in the ominous, green-tinged style of an early-2000s horror movie. At times, Lúcia looks like a girl possessed, rendered creepy by her determined stare and darkened eye sockets. Pontecorvo likes to place her in shadows, which compounds the effect of making her look spooky. Perhaps the goal was not to over-idealize this young messenger, even if the resulting portrayal leans so far in the other direction that, with a slightly more menacing score, “Fatima” would feel less like a tale of miracles than like the latest exorcism-themed exploitation movie, or something along the lines of Blumhouse’s blasphemous “The Nun.”
All this is to say that Pontecorvo’s stylistic tendencies interfere more than they add. Scene after scene begins with a distracting camera move or dynamic crane shot, presumably designed to add grandeur, but instead drawing unwanted attention to the director’s technique. Pontecorvo further confuses things with strange blurring effects and unnerving dream sequences, which distinguish “Fatima” from the square, proselytizing feel of the 1952 film, although its motives are the same. The movie was greenlit in conjunction with the centennial celebrations of the so-called Miracle of the Sun, and the film can’t resist getting flashy with its grand finale. Will it matter? “Some people will never believe,” Mary says. For those who do, however, this is just the spiritual fireworks show they’ve been waiting for.