Fatima

a faith-based story for believers that attempts to interrogate its subject, but never follows through

M, 113 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A love of the visual steeps every frame of this lushly photographed story directed by Marco Pontecorvo. Fatima capitalises on locations set entirely in picturesque Portugal, a country that has sidestepped some of the excesses of modern development and where the Christian wayside shrine is still a commonplace.

And it is located in the very place where the events it recounts took place a little over a century ago.

The year was 1917 when the First World War was still laying waste to Europe. Portugal had only just begun to send troops to the front.

Lucia dos Santos (Stephanie Gil, the actor who was young Grace in the latest Terminator) would accompany her mother regularly to the village square to hear the Mayor (Goran Visnjic) provide the latest updates on battle casualties.

So long as they didn’t hear the name of Lucia’s older brother read out, there was always space for hope.

It was around this time that Lucia and her two cousins, Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco Marto (Jorge Lamelas), aged 7 and 9 respectively, reported receiving visions of the Virgin Mary. The apparitions, which the audience is also allowed to see in the shape of Portuguese actor Joana Ribeiro, came to them while they were out tending the family’s sheep.

It was a sensational claim. Both officials of the Church and of the government of the new Portuguese republic that was founded on enlightened, secular principles, queried it. As did the children’s families, strenuously.

Lucia had instructed her cousins to keep it quiet, but it was too much of a secret for little Jacinta, who told her family straightaway.

Lucia’s mother, Maria Rosa, in particular, has anticipated the trouble it would cause. Lucia Moniz in this key role, provides one of the film’s most convincing performances.

The interrogation of the children was ongoing. They were subjected to stern parental disapproval, interrogation by the Mayor, a staunch republican and anti-cleric, and the regional Catholic monseigneur.

Watching a pallid Stephanie Gil during these sessions, my cinematic memory wandered over briefly to Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and other films since 1973 that have been about pre-pubescent girls claiming to have seen visions.

exchanges between the professor and the nun do little to challenge this faith-based story

For viewers like me, secular and sceptical, Harvey Keitel’s character, Professor Nichols, provides welcome outsider perspective. Nichols, an academic who is researching the events in Fatima many decades later, pays a visit to the beautiful university city of Coimbra. There he interviews Lucia (Sonia Braga), who joined the church and become a nun.

It is an intriguing footnote to history that Lucia doc Santos lived on until 2005, while her two little cousins died very young, during the post WW1 global flu pandemic.

The exchanges between Nichols and Sister Lucia constitute the framing story and are some of the liveliest in the film. However, entertaining and thought-provoking as they are, they are not permitted to provide much of a challenge to the central faith-based story.

The Fatima screenplay is the work of Pontecorvo, together with Valerio D’Annunzio and Barbara Nicolosi.

It is no surprise to read that Pontecorvo entered the screen industry as a cinematographer or that he was a stills photographer before that. It is clear that the creation of visuals is a strength and a preoccupation. He has worked on productions like Games of Thrones.

However, in this secular age, his take on the story of the Marian apparitions of Fatima is very literal. Although there is a brief and intriguing scene of Hell, as conveyed to the children by Mary, the film steers well clear of sensation.

The film takes few chances, on the look or the content. It deploys few FX tricks of the film production trade now available, and concludes with footage in the closing credits of the centenary mass of 2017 conducted by Pope Francis that was held in the town of Fatima. A statement in itself.

If the name Pontecorvo sounds familiar, you may have come across it before in one of those best film lists of all time. Gillo Pontecorvo, Marco’s famous filmmaker father, directed The Battle of Algiers of 1966 which to this day remains a stirring cinema masterpiece about the resistance forces in Algeria that overthrew their French colonial masters.

Marco’s film, his fourth feature, is a much quieter project though it’s a story about the popular expression of conviction as well.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 September 2020