‘Fatima’ Finds Its Faith in the Human Power of Cinematic Miracles

The post-Biblical epic “Fatima” opens with a quote by the quintessential scientist, Albert Einstein: “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” The film makes a good case for the latter. Not because we should believe in divine intervention as the cause of the Miracle of the Sun, but due to the power of the belief of the director. Marco Pontecorvo may not specifically believe in the divinity of any individual incident which cannot be explained by science, but he has faith in the camera. It can make the sun fall from the sky, even without CGI. He is truly devoted to emotional cinema. He knows it can move mountains, and hopes it mends minds.

Reflected through the eyes of the three children, the appearance of the Lady of the Rosary has power. Stephanie Gil as Lúcia dos Santos and Alejandra Howard as Lúcia’s cousin Jacinta Marto bring reverence to a sacred field and childlike irreverence to the neighborhood. Jorge Lamelas as Lúcia’s cousin Francisco Marto captures a more identifiable ambivalence. He can’t hear everything being said, and he knows the Lady of the Rosary is talking behind his back. 

The children bring a simple bravery to their roles. Not only do they have to answer to the secularist Mayor Arturo, played sympathetically and with a subtle desperation by Goran Višnjić, and the local church leaders, they have to defy their parents. This is especially painful in scenes between Lúcia and her mother Maria Rosa (Lúcia Moniz), who blames her daughter for the possible death of her older brother, a soldier fighting in the World War. The children watch as their family suffers the consequences and take impossible blame for improbable crimes.

The scenes between Sônia Braga as the older Sister Lúcia dos Santos and Harvey Keitel as the skeptical Professor Nichols are almost comic relief to the tortures the children and the families are going through. The two actors are obviously enjoying doing what actors love best, acting through conversation. They argue, banter, tease and challenge each other as characters, but there is a gleam of appreciation in both performers just to speak through the cloister divider.

“Fatima” is beautifully shot. Using only the natural symmetry of the Portugal landscape as its frame, it creates a spectacle of possibilities. We anticipate a visionary episode can begin behind any leaf as Lúcia runs from the guilt of her commitment to her truth. The crowds which appear to witness the apparition, destroying Lúcia’s long-suffering but loyal father António’s (Marco d’Almeida) crops, turn the landscape into biblical iconography without a single burning bush in sight. But when that camera burns, it can sizzle flesh. 

The interpretations of the visions Lúcia experiences while in spiritual reverie come fully formed in subliminal waves. World War II is seen as a cascading landscape of missing limbs, impossible jets and man-made explosions which dwarf the ancient plagues of the “Old Testament.” The fall of the Holy Roman Catholic Church through the rising atheism of Communism takes the form of the destruction of Rome and the assassination of a beloved pope. Hell is not for children. Lúcia’s descent into the immortal abyss of the sinners’ afterlife evokes Medieval tortures. The sets are as detailed as the iconic religious art of Hieronymus Bosch, Jan van Eyck, Fra Angelico and Fra Angelico but presented below consciousness. The little girl can barely understand what she is looking at, and Pontecorvo captures that confusion brilliantly and empathically.

The Miracle of the Sun sequence is also a cinematic marvel. Not because it is a Hollywood extravaganza with mind-blowing special effects, but because it captures the phenomenon in a very realistic way. We accept this is what the people saw because we can visualize how it would look to ourselves. There have been other incidences of sacred solar evidence, a 1981 Marian apparition in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, was accompanied by a rolling sun which was witnessed by thousands and filmed by pilgrims. Pontecorvo captures the realistic glare of the disconcerting atmospheric disturbance, but when the grander approach of the sun to the earth actually happens, he shows us the followers’ reactions, not the sky. 

By doing this Pontecorvo stays true to the initial narrative. There is an establishing shot capturing a man with a camera recording the incident. Photographs of the October 13, 1917 miracle outside the parish of Fátima focused on the spectators, the shots of the sun did come out on camera. The few which have been claimed as authentic are problematic. Pontecorvo does the same with the Virgin Mary, played with agonized compassion by Joana Ribeiro. The Lady who says she is from heaven appears far from otherworldly. She is an earth mother, with bare feet, who looks like a regular person. Her ascent into the heavens is also seen only through the children’s reactions. We watch as they watch. 

Francisco and Jacinta Marto died in the 1918 flu pandemic and were canonized as saints. Sister Lucia died in 2005. She was given the title “Servant of God” as the first step toward canonization on Feb. 13, 2017. Pontecorvo makes a subtle case for her inviolability. The filmmaker is best known as a cinematographer and director of photography on HBO’s miniseries “Rome” and “Game of Thrones.” He made his directorial debut with “Pa-Ra-Da,” the 2008 film which told the true story of a street clown who trained poor children to be circus performers. His father, Gillo Pontecorvo, directed the 1966 revolutionary classic “The Battle of Algiers,” a feature so realistic it looked like a documentary. “Fatima” has instances of pure realism, capturing the period from the streets to the unchanging fields.

“Fatima” will be called an uplifting story about the power of faith in the secular mainstream motion picture environment. It is a far more human story than Mel Gibson’s torturous “Passion of the Christ.” It owes more to the 1944 classic “Song Of Bernadette,” which won Jennifer Jones the Best Actress Oscar for her role as Bernadette Soubirous, than the 1952 film “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima,” which is more of a fairy tale. Written by Marco Pontecorvo with Valerio D’Annunzio and Barbara Nicolosi, “Fatima” is a subversive film that presents Marian doctrine as supernatural cinema. “Fátima” veers from the most frightening aspect of the 1917 visitation: The Virgin’s third secret, purported to be an Apocalyptic warning, and sealed from public view. In doing this, Pontecorvo leaves it to faith and lets the audience fill in the gap.

Fatima” releases Aug. 28 on VOD.