In 1917, as the world was at war and facing a once-in-a-century pandemic, a story emerged out of a rural town in Portugal that would have the faithful calling for the canonization of three children of shepherds and have skeptics attempting to disprove their stories for years to come. Known as Our Lady of Fátima, the children claimed to see an apparition of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who would speak to them, pray with them and eventually promise to share secrets with them only they could know. Appearing to them monthly, eventually word got out around the region and by October of 1917, somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 people flocked to the spot of the apparitions to see the children see the Holy Mother and hear them report back on what she told them.
The whole affair is recounted in Fatima, a generally passable, polished narrative told in flashbacks as a professor (Harvey Keitel) interviews an aging Sister Lucia (Sonia Braga), who was one of the three children to have had the visions during the war. The two meet at the Sister’s convent, a mesh screen (like what separates the priest from his parishioner in a confessional) between them. As Professor Nichols and Sister Lucia chat, the film cuts back to her childhood and attempts to recreate the religious experience of seeing Mary, Mother of God, appear before her and her cousins, Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco (Jorge Lamelas). Director Marco Pontecorvo (who shares writing credits with Valerio D’Annunzio and Barbara Nicolosi) has more cinematography credits to his name than anything, and it shows in a film that depends so much on the light in a scene to express its divinity. With almost sepia-like tones, the scenes set during World War I are drab and nearly monochrome, certainly evoking the desperation of the time.
Lucia (played as a child by Stephanie Gil) tells her mother, Maria Rosa (Lúcia Moniz, familiar to rom-com audiences as Jamie’s Portuguese love interest in Love, Actually), what she’s been seeing, but her mother is smart enough to keep the claims to herself—or at least try to. With Jacinto and Francisco there too, word about their encounters (the Virgin Mary tells them to return to the same spot every month for a new message) quickly spreads, gaining attention from those who share their faith and earning scrutiny from Artur Santos (Goran Visnjic), the provincial administrator who prides himself on running a modern, science- and reason-based state. As attention on the children and their visions grows, Santos goes so far as to detain them on their way to the next appearance in order to stop the growing interest in something he sees as not simply untrue but potentially dangerous.
After screening the film, I admit I visited the Wikipedia page dedicated to the events it depicts, just to give myself a better understanding of how it all happened. Not to say that the film is confusing or incomplete; a prolonged epilogue shares a quite extensive overview of how the events in 1917 resonated for decades in the Catholic community. Instead, as the film dramatizes the events (and, as it has to, imagines the various dramatic encounters and exchanges between characters), it all starts to take on an air of self-grandeur and importance that is ultimately off-putting. The child actors don’t quite deliver on the demands of a script that requires they believe their lines in order to get us to believe the film, and more than once the dialogue is far too expository to be natural. (The very odd accents don’t help, either.)
As we deal with our own (hopefully) once-in-a-century pandemic and wars rage on different battlefields around the world today (real or virtual), something like the story of Fatima could be quite compelling. How did a community, wracked with anxiety and heartbreak as their boys are sent off to fight, as innocent lives are lost to an invisible virus, respond to the claims of children who say they’ve seen and spoken to Mary, the Blessed Mother? With hope? With disdain? With a combination of the two? Those questions are worth exploring, and perhaps there’s a documentary somewhere (or to come) that can investigate them through historical records and expert input. Insteadt, Fatima—despite looking every bit the glossy Hollywood drama—barely musters the dramatic chops to give this intriguing story its due.
Fatima is now available on all major VOD platforms.
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