Religious films have been a move staple for decades. The story of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fátima in 1917 and its attendant miracles and controversies is a familiar one. Perhaps the best-known retelling was the 1952 film The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Now, director Marco Pontecorvo has given us Fatima, which is very different in style, even while covering a lot of the same ground.
The film retells the well-known story of Lúcia dos Santos, then a 10-year-old shepherd girl, and her two young cousins (now saints), Francisco and Jacinta Marto, who experienced six apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Fátima, Portugal, in 1917 - inspiring the faithful (whose faith will eventually be rewarded in October with the famous “Miracle of the Sun”) but also angering Portuguese officialdom. In the background, of course, is the terrible turmoil of that time. A military coup had overthrown the monarchy and made Portugal an anti-religious republic in 1910. Portugal had entered World War I on the side of the allies, and at the time when the movie is set. Lucia’s own brother is missing in action.
Paralleling those events, the movie is partially set in 1989, when a (fictional) skeptical Professor Nichols interviews the elderly Sister Lúcia in her Carmelite convent in Coimbra. Over the course of the film, he interrogates her and challenges her testimony, to which Sister Lúcia answers directly (and sometimes somewhat teasingly). These discussions are the dramatic device for airing some of the theological and other questions the account of the apparitions present, even while the movie itself travels back and forth between the earlier events and Lúcia’s recollections.
As it was in 1917, so in 1989, the gap between believers and unbelievers remains unbridged. For the professor, "Not everything unexplainable is necessarily transcendent." For Sister Lúcia, "Faith begins at the edge of understanding."
The interplay between Sr. Lúcia and the professor seems to be an attempt to bring the story up-to-date, in terms of assessing what might be the long-term relevance of the apparitions. Full disclosure: I have visited Fátima and celebrated Mass in the glass-enclosed little chapel that marks the site where the tree once stood on which Our Lady appeared. Unlike Lourdes, however, where the message of mercy and healing for the sick and suffering stands out with comforting clarity, Fátima's impact has always seemed somewhat more ambivalent. On the one hand, there is the basic evangelical message to pray and do penance. On the other, there are the "secrets" and the apocalypticism they have attracted.
Since, of course, we already know the story, the film can seem ponderously lengthy and at times over-indulging in excessive artistry. Fortunately in terms of its length, it only portrays the first three apparitions (May, June, July), then the episode of the children's arrest in August, and then skips to the final "Miracle fo the Sun" apparition in October. For some reason, the film depicts the apparitions differently from how they actually occurred according to the received accounts. This does the story no harm, but seems unnecessary. On the other hand, the three "secrets" revealed at the July apparition are well portrayed - and then left there, as Our Lady left them with Lúcia, to be appropriated more privately by the viewer. (The film follows the official Roman interpretation of the third "secret" and carefully avoids fanning any additional apocalypticism or contrary interpretations.)
The genteel, somewhat intellectual, back-and-forth between Sr. Lúcia and the professor is paralleled by the much more raw setting of wartime, anti-religious Portugal in 1917. It Illustrates the Republic's intense hostility to religion, while highlighting the peasant piety it was trying to eradicate (a piety intermixed with the petty hurtfulness of insular rural life). As usual in such stories, we witness the pathetic peasantry's desperation for a healing or some other favor to relieve their precarious condition. Also as usual in such portrayals, the authorities - civil and religious - come across unfavorably.
Since the larger story is so familiar already, perhaps what stands out most is all the apparently gratuitous suffering the apparitions seems to trigger in a poor, peasant community in the middle of a war, a community forced finally to fall back on the one singular resource of faith. As Lúcia's father tells her at one particularly poignant moment, "At times our special gifts can lead us to trouble."