Producers: Stefano Buono, Rose Ganguzza, Natasha Howes, Maribel Lopera Sierra, Richard I. Lyles, Marco Pontecorvo and James T, Volk     Director: Marco Pontecorvo   Screenplay: Valerio D’Annunzio, Barbara Nicolosi and Marco Pontecorvo   Cast: Joaquim De Almeida, Goran Višnjić, Stephanie Gil, Lúcia Moniz, Sônia Braga, Jorge Lamelas, Alejandra Howard, Joana Ribeiro, Marco D’Almeida, Carla Chambel, Elmano Sancho, João D’Ávila, Iris Cayatte, João Arrais, Simão Cayatte and Harvey Keitel   Distributor: Picturehouse

Grade: B-

Back in 1952, Warner Bros. made a lavish film centering on apparitions of Mary that three Portuguese youngsters claimed had occurred to them outside the village of Fátima over six months in 1917. The visions culminated with what is referred to by believers as the Miracle of the Sun on October 13, and the entire episode was made more memorable by three so-called secrets revealed to the children, the last of which was kept closely guarded by the Vatican for more than eighty years as the locale became a pilgrimage site housing an elaborate new church.

Now, in celebration of the centenary of the event (the film closes with photographs a visit by Pope Francis to Fátima in 2017), cinematographer (“Game of Thrones”)-turned-director Marco Pontecorvo, son of Gillo (director of 1965’s remarkable “The Battle of Algiers”) returns to the subject, delivering a smooth, reverential account that will be embraced by believers but is unlikely to convert doubters.

Although the narrative is periodically punctuated by comments from a professorial skeptic named Nichols (Harvey Keitel), who questions whether there was anything supernatural about what happened at Fátima, the film accepts the miraculous nature of the visions as a given, presenting them from the perspective of Lúcia dos Santos (Stephanie Gil), the ten-year old shepherd girl who, along with her younger cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto (Jorge Lamelas and Alejandra Howard), witnessed the apparitions.  Nichols’ doubts are presented in the form of questions posed to Sister Lúcia (Sônia Braga) in 1989, after her many years as a Carmelite nun, and she responds to his objections with faithful certitude.

In the 1917 scenes, the visions are presented in terms that are quite naturalistic, with Mary (Joana Ribeiro) presented not in beams of extraterrestrial light and CGI but simply as a woman in a flowing white robe.  The figure, of course, can be seen only by the children, and not by the crowds that begin to assemble at the place on the Dos Santos land where the apparitions will occur on the thirteenth of each month.

The popular response to what’s happening soon concerns both secular and ecclesiastical officials.  Most upset is the region’s local governor Arturo (Goran Višnjić), a representative of the fiercely anti-clerical Republic established in 1910, whose actions become increasingly harsh despite the protestations of his wife (Iris Cayatte).  But church authorities, fearful that a passionate movement of the kind Fátima spawns will lead to a governmental crackdown, are also uneasy.  That’s initially the case with the local pastor Father Ferreira (Joaquim De Almeida), though he is eventually persuaded of the children’s veracity, and the bishop (João D’Ávila) sent to question them.

Lúcia’s family is also distressed by the groundswell of interest in her claims.  As the crowds of faithful increase, the anxiety of her mother Maria Rosa (Lúcia Moniz) grows ever greater, and though her husband Antonio (Marco D’Almeida) is more supportive, his objection to people traipsing about his property is palpable.    He and his wife are also deeply frightened over the danger that their son Manuel (Elmano Sancho), a soldier in the field, faces every day—a fact reinforced by the list of dead and missing-in-action announced regularly by Arturo in the town square.

In the end, of course, no amount of human opposition can short-circuit the divine plan, and with the miracle of October 13, when a rainstorm suddenly ceased and the crowd witnessed unusual, and terrifying movements of the sun in the sky, the truth of Mary’s call to repentance to the children was confirmed insofar as the faithful were concerned.  (Curiously, this doesn’t arise in the conversations between Sister Lúcia and Professor Nichols.)  As captions at the film’s close report, the papacy later declared the visions worthy of belief, the site became a popular shrine, and in 2017 Pope Francis canonized Francisco and Jacinta, both of whom died in the flu epidemic of 1918.  Lúcia’s cause remains in process; she died in 2005. 

 “Fatima” is a better-than-average faith-based docu-drama, for the most part made with considerable finesse in Portuguese locations by Pontecorvo, cinematographer Vincenzo Carpineta and production designer Cristina Onori–although the dank ambience they favor can be oppressive, and the hallucinatory quality that imbues the visions associated with the three secrets borders on the risible, especially in the depiction of hell, with its fire, torture and demons.  Editor Alessio Doglione doesn’t  always manage to make the chronological shifts as smooth as they might be, but his work is mostly good, and the score by Paolo Buonvino avoids the worst excesses of pietism.

The acting, moreover, is solid, especially for a film of this type.  Probably the best work comes from Moniz, who brings considerable nuance to Maria Rosa, but youngsters Gil, Lamelas and Howard are all engaging and credible, and the other adults carry off their duties creditably.  

To return to those three secrets, the first two—the vision of hell and a plea for devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and a prophecy of a greater conflict than World War I if the devotion was not observed—were revealed by Sister Lúcia in the 1930s.  The third, a vision of the assassination of a pope and other religious figures, was withheld by the Vatican until 2000, although controversy persists about whether a portion of its text was still being suppressed.           

Pontecorvo, however, has no doubt about it: he dramatizes it along with the vision of hell, and in a similarly overdone fashion.  Such blemishes, however, are relative rarities in what is otherwise a film that should win approbation from Catholic authorities and the faithful in the pews.