Uneven performances and a dawdling, clunky script mute the impact of “Fatima,” the latest attempt to tell the story of “Our Lady of Fatima” in a way that doesn’t insult the faithful or earn ridicule from everybody else.
This modern era Catholic “miracle” long ago crossed into myth, a story kept alive by various means and in many media over the century since it happened.
Marco Pontecorvo’s film uses a standard historical picture device — the “interview” with a principal that takes us back to the late WWI visions seen by three Portuguese children, shepherds who claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary, “Our Lady of the Rosary,” who delivered a message of hope for them to pass on to a troubled world.
Sônia Braga is Sister Lucia, last surviving direct link to the visions, now an old woman who speaks to a researcher (Harvey Keitel) writing a book about “mass delusions” and “seers,” and a man who has already written that “all seers are ‘de facto’ unstable.”
Sister Lucia, reminiscing about what happened to her at age 10, isn’t trying to convince this professor. “I can only give my testimony,” she confesses. “It doesn’t look like the world has heeded the message of heavenly peace” that “our lady” passed on.
Her flashbacks take us to the horrors of World War I Portugal, a new republic struggling to make its place in the Europe by contributing to the Allied war effort in France. Little Lucia (Stephanie Gil) has a brother in the trenches in France and a devout mother (Lúcia Moniz) who figures prayers and fervent belief will bring her boy Manuel home safe and sound.
The script suggests that Lucia’s heavy burden of faith is put on her shoulders by her mother, whose prayers involved bargaining with God, promising this and that if Manuel came home. Slip up, lose faith or fail to walk a pious path, Mom preaches, and Lucia could seal Manuel’s fate.
Maybe that’s why she started seeing a woman in white, first in a cave where she drew on the walls while tending their sheep, then on a hillside with two young shepherd friends (Alejandra Howard, Jorge Lamelas). Lucia is shown horrors, including Manuel’s possible fate, “a war worse than this one,” a papal assassination attempt, during these visions, which she was ordered to keep “secret.”
But a visitation from the Virgin Mary is not something you hide from the superstitious Catholics of 1917 Portugal. The priest (Joaquim de Almeida) thinks “someone is playing a prank on you” or “the Devil is trying to trick you.” The mayor (Goran Visnjic) is aggravated at this “stupid superstition” among his constituents.
But through disbelief and threats, and the overwhelming attention by thousands of the faithful who flock to the city of Fátima to behold a miracle, be healed or ask for the save return of loved ones.
The script veers from corny credulity to some very nicely-conceived arguments raised by the skeptical professor to the old but still a firm-believer nun. The many logical fallacies common to such miracles are introduced, chief among them the notion that “Jesus had chosen” the children for this message, putting a terrible burden on the very young, who endure intense questioning, skeptical neighbors and official scorn.
Showing them Hell, and saying that two of the three would “soon be joining me” (in heaven) isn’t something a beneficent deity would do to little kids.
If you’re looking for a film that makes its case that Lucia, as the oldest, the ringleader and the sole survivor around when a shrine was built at the site of the visions, “Fatima” isn’t it. The vague nature of the prophecies doesn’t close the deal.
The film itself is a mixed bag, some decent performances — Keitel, young Gil and Moniz stand out — struggling with a script that wants to have it both ways and yet neither debunks the stories nor makes the case for the canonizations of the kids.
The crowd scenes, with a sea of extras convincingly desperate to believe, are the heart of the picture and the only moments that really come close to “moving.” “Fatima” finds its emotional core here, a miracle placed in its context, but limited in ways that don’t bear up to any application of logic.
The skeptics and cynics are drawn as cartoons, people who can be won over by whatever happened there back in 1917.
It’d take a Hail Mary better than anything we see here to lift “Fatima” into the realm of faith-based films that change hearts and minds.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for some strong violence and disturbing images
Cast: Stephanie Gil, Joana Ribeiro, Joaquim de Almeida, Goran Visnjic, Stephanie Gil, Joana Ribeiro, Lúcia Moniz, Harvey Keitel and Sônia Braga.
Credits: Directed by Marco Pontecorvo, script by Valerio D’Annunzio, Barbara Nicolosi and Marco Pontecorvo. A Picturehouse film on Netflix.
Running time: 1:52