THE Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared in many Marian sites, like Lourdes, Guadalupe, Akita, La Salette, Betania, etc. One of the most popular is Fatima in Portugal. On May 13, 1917, the Virgin appeared to three shepherd kids and this was first filmed in Hollywood in 1952 by Warner Bros.
We saw that version and it uses actor Gilbert Roland as Hugo, a rascal and non-believer in God who’s a good friend of the three kids. He’s meant to serve the viewpoint of non-Catholic viewers and, in the end, he gets converted when he witnesses the Miracle of the Sun. This is a spectacular event seen by 70,000 people who went to the Cova de Iria (the pasteurland where the Virgin appears) on that fateful date and many of whom have given their own personal testimonies about what transpired.
There are other versions, “Apparitions at Fatima”, made in Portugal in 1992, and “The 13th Day” in 2009, an indie film by Ian and Dominic Higgins, said to be the most historically accurate and shows Sister Lucia while writing her memoirs. We didn’t see these last two films, but we now have a new Fatima movie, “Fatima”, directed by Marco Pontecorvo, son of Gillo Pontecorvo who did the classic “Battle of Algiers”.
Filmed in Portugal in English, this one starts with the 10-year-old Lucia (Stephanie Gil) seeing a woman in a cave who introduced herself as the Angel of Peace. After this, while pasteuring their sheep with younger cousins Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco (Jorge Lamelas), a beautiful lady appears to them.
She tells them to pray the rosary to help end the war that was then ravaging Europe. Later on, she gives them a vision of hell. The war did end the following year, 1918, but the flu pandemic also happened and claimed the lives of Jacinta and Francisco, who the Lady both predicted to die early.
In the Hollywood version, the Lady comes down from a heaven in a cloud and settles on top of a tree. You never really see her face and she’s more like a mere ghostly apparition in white. But in the new film, they don’t use any special effects. She’s in simple white garments, even walks on the ground. When her mom asks Lucia how the Lady (played by Portuguese actress Joanna Ribeiro) is, she replies: “She is as real as you are!”
The miracle scenes are framed by an interview with the main visionary, Sister Lucia herself (as played by Brazilian actress Sonia Braga of “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) and Harvey Keitel as a skeptical religion professor who visited her in 1989 at the Carmelite Convent in Coimbra, Portugal where she lives. She died on February 13, 2005 at the age of 97.
The Hollywood version starts in 1910 when Socialists took over as rulers of Portugal and tried to suppress the Catholic Church, but they failed to do so. In the new version, the First World War is raging by 1917 and many families have lost their male members who fought in the war. Lucia’s older brother, Manuel, is a soldier who goes missing at the warfront.
When the apparitions start, Lucia’s mother gets upset, tells her to stop lying and even slaps her. Their parish priest also doubts the veracity of her story, and even more so their bishop and town mayor who pressure her to recant. The mayor even imprisons her and asks a psychiatrist to examine her and her cousins.
The film has excellent production values, shot at a picturesque medieval town where time seems to have stood still. It gives the film a vivid sense of place and ambiance with its rustic houses and Renaissance-era church. Director Pontecorvo’s style recalls Ignatian Spirituality that says God is present in our daily lives. His camera often takes the point of view of the child Lucia, showing the trees and its rustling leaves, the grass moving with the wind, making nature appear like an emanation of a bigger power trying to impart something and evoke the experience of faith. As one of our spiritual advisers, Fr. Ruben Tanseco SJ, says: “We are really one with nature to show there’s something beyond.”
It’s also to the credit of Director Pontecorvo that he’s adept in directing kids. Stephanie Gil gives a very convincing and affecting performance as Lucia specially when she shows her conflicted confusion in trying to understand what’s going on in her young life. The kids who play Jacinta and Francisco also bring much charm and sensitivity to their roles.
Giving great support is Goran Vinsjic as the villainous mayor, who is pictured like Pilate in that he tries to maintain order amidst religious hysteria when pilgrims start flocking to Fatima. He even has his own resistant wife like that of Pilate, Adelina, who’s a Catholic very supportive of the three kids.
The scenes shot in 1989 give you a sense of historical perspective about the miracle that happened in the past, with Keitel cross-examining Braga about her experiences as a visionary. But he also asks about other religious topics, like why Jesus Christ is portrayed to have been nailed on his hands when history shows the crucifixion at the time of Christ was done on the wrists.
Does this mean God deliberately chose the wrong location for stigmata? Sister Lucia’s answer: “I can only give you my testimony. Professor, I don’t have answers for everything.”
Both Braga and Keitel are superb in their roles. At one point, Sister Lucia even tells her interrogator: “Sometimes, I have to tease you.” It is said that people who got the chance to visit her then testify that she really has a good sense of humor and Braga captures this with a twinkle in her eye. Keitel, in turn, is properly respectful, always allowing her to have her say, conducting a healthy debate that avoids polarizing.
The ultimate question is do you believe in miracles? We were born and raised as a Catholic. As a child, we’re fond of watching religious films about saints from local ones like “Sta. Lucia” starring Edna Luna and “Sta. Rita de Casia” with Rosemarie Gil, to “The Song of Bernadette” and “Joan of Arc”. In the end, you can watch and read lots and lots of religious films and books, but it’s still all up to you. Faith is not really that complicated. It’s just a matter of believing or not.
The film quotes Einsten in the end: “There are only 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’s end credits also features two great spiritual songs: “Gloria, The Gift of Life” and “Gratia Plana (Full of Grace)”. Both are rendered by Andrea Bocelli. It’s nothing short of electrifying.