Graham Greene once remarked that the biggest problem of our age lies in the fact that we have lost the ability to believe in miracles and their meaning. Marco Pontecorvo’s Fatima may go some way to addressing this problem, but perhaps not the whole hog. Based on the life of Sister Lucia, a Portuguese nun who claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary in a field in Fatima, Portugal in 1917, the film documents the events that led to the Vatican deeming the apparitions “worthy of belief” in 1930. Recounted in flashbacks, Fatima pits the protagonist Lucia against two main opponents. In 1989, Lucia (Sonia Braga) agrees to a questioning of the events of her childhood by a sceptical professor (Harvey Keitel of Taxi Driver and Pulp Fiction). In the 1917 scenes, Lucia (Stephanie Gil) takes a stand against her parents, the clergy and small-town mayor (Goran Visnjic formerly of ER) whose secularism is designed to go hand-in-hand with the mechanical horrors of the First World War.
This is not the first cinematic outing for the Marian apparitions at Fatima. In 1952, post-war Hollywood took on the topic, producing the highly successful The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. More recently, there has been the Portuguese-language rendition Apparitions at Fatima (1992) and the art-house offering The 13th Day, produced in 2009. And yet, despite the irresistible nature of the subject matter to directors, there remains little critical consensus on how to visually render the miracle for both Catholic and secular audiences alike. Interviewed, director Pontecorvo expressed his intention for the miracle to be open to multiple interpretations determined by the viewer. Given that Lucia’s visions are visible to viewers in the form of the Virgin (Joana Ribeiro), it’s not entirely clear whether Pontecorvo is asking viewers to make their own leap of faith or follow his own, believing, stance.
But the film’s cinematic realism is – mercifully – a far cry from the heavy-handed treatment of the miraculous in Hollywood spectacles with their special effects of angel choruses, clouds parting on screen and large hands pointing towards the Truth. Pontecorvo depicts miracles on screen but these are matter-of-fact, naturalistic even. When the Virgin first appears to the three shepherd children in the field, the camera glides closely across their faces and the rugged landscape, suggesting that the miraculous may lie within and around us if we would only suspend prejudice. The solar movements or “miracle of the sun” in October 1917 that eventually corroborate the Vatican’s certification of the miraculous are similarly underlined as an exposition of the fantastic manifested within the natural world.
Fatima is at its best when it concentrates on how violent collective crises such as war generate extraordinary personal and national experiences that transcend reason. Portugal’s experience of the First World War was no exception. Portugal’s suffering, as participant in the fighting but not proximate to the front line, reveals how precariously the spiritual and psychic fate of the nation hung in the balance. The film succeeds in illustrating the scale of this crisis in the way it shuttles between the personal torments of Sister Lucia and the collective torments of a nation mourning its war dead, particularly its female contingent. Other oppositions in the film feel far more laboured. Although Pontecorvo carefully sets up the thematic tensions between secularism and belief, the Holy Mother and Lucia’s actual mother, scholarship versus spirituality etc, these antitheses too often feel clumsy and repetitive, like an overdrawn sketch of the subject’s stakes.
Sister Lucia’s long (she died in 2005, aged 97) and august life gave rise to an extraordinary level of politicisation. When the Church disclosed her secrets in 1942, one of the revelations from the Virgin was said to be a warning against Russia’s errors. Under pressure from anticlericalism during the Second World War, the small village of Fatima became a shrine for anti-Communists in the context of the Spanish Civil War and the Cold War. As a message of hope and a call to belief in the crucible of modernity, Sister Lucia’s visions spoke to a world that wanted to believe rather than destroy. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder what she would have made of the Covid pandemic and who, if any, are our own seers in time of crisis. I glumly concluded that scientists, not the Church, are the unworthy seers of our age. Graham Greene was right. Let’s believe in miracles again.
Fatima is available to watch in the cinema and on all digital platforms. For more information please visit www.fatimafilm.co.uk
Arabella Byrne is a freelance journalist and writer for the Spectator and the Critic. She is writing a novel based on the Great War diaries of French Catholic writer Jacques Rivière.
This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.