The First World War hangs like a cloud over Marco Pontecorvo’s Fatima, as it did when the events inspiring the film took place in 1917. Three small children – the oldest, Lucia, was just 10 – were visited by apparitions of the Virgin Mary, who urged them to pray so the war would end and an even worse one would be prevented. The site is now the home of a basilica, which attracts pilgrimages from all over the world.
The film sets the scene of a Portugal which had recently become a republic with a regime that discouraged traditional adherence to the Catholic Church. In the small town of Fatima, people held on to their beliefs, much to the frustration of local mayor, Arturo (Goran Visnjic), so when Lucia (Stephanie Gil) and her cousins Francisco (Jorge Lamelas) and Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) claim that the Virgin Mary appeared to them in nearby fields, it has to be kept secret. But the story leaks out all too quickly, with the children pressurised by the civil and religious authorities to retract their story and their home lives turned even more upside down than before.
In his first English language film as a director, Pontecorvo adopts a direct approach to telling the story, but one which treats both religion and atheism with equal respect and seriousness. While in the main narrative, it’s the cause of a huge rift between Arturo and the townsfolk – one which threatens his own marriage – it’s also addressed in a more philosophical fashion by the conversations between a visiting professor (Harvey Keitel) and the aging Sister Lucia (Sonia Braga), which take place during the 1980s when she lives in a Carmelite Convent. As a link between the episodes in the story and which also gives each section of the film a theme, it’s stodgy, clumsy even, but as a rational debate between the opposing points of view, it’s more successful, establishing a respectful tone and giving both the space to have their say.
Equally, while Arturo could have easily been the villain of the piece, he’s allowed to show his human side, as is Lucia’s mother Maria (Lucia Moniz) who the girl always feels has never really loved her, favouring her older brother, Martin, who is fighting in the war. Mother and daughter assemble with everybody else in the town square each week, going through the agony of listening to the roll call of soldiers who have either been killed or are missing in action and Martin’s survival seems to be the main reason behind Maria’s devotion to the church. It’s just one of the many directions in which she’s being pulled as her family life starts to crumble in front of her eyes. Indeed, it’s a film that gives all its major characters a satisfying complexity: Lucia herself is remarkably mature for a ten year old in some ways but still a child in others, the local priest finds it hard to believe in the children’s experience while Lucia’s father has to be pragmatic as the family faces ruin because his daughter stands by what she said.
Originally a cinematographer, Pontecorvo puts his skills behind the camera to good use, embracing the natural surroundings and light and generally creating a film with strong visual appeal and a sense of the otherworldly. The re-creation of what has since become known as “the miracle of the sun” – an event which has never been fully explained – is more ambiguous and, strangely, no attempt is made to explain it in the captions at the end of the film. But for anybody who’s not heard the story, the result is a film that takes itself and its subject matter seriously and, while it’s clearly invested in the children’s story, is still careful to be even handed and respectful of the other point of view.
Drama, Religion | Cert: 12A | Republic Film Distribution | Cinemas and PVOD | 25 June 2021 | Dir. Marco Montecorvo | Stephanie Gil, Goran Visnjic, Jorge Lamelas, Alejandra Howard, Lucia Moniz, Harvey Keitel, Sonia Braga.