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Fatima

***1/2

by Matt Anderson

published August 29, 2020

On the surface, Fatima is based on an actual event, the Miracle of the Sun. But the impact of the movie runs much deeper as it examines faith, hope and so many human frailties.

Angel of Portugal

Fatima is a tricky movie to dissect.

It’s inspired by historical events in Portugal in 1917; World War I was raging and the Spanish Flu pandemic was right around the corner. It’s a timely story of cataclysmic events, endurance — and isolation. But, while the movie’s marketing skews toward an “uplifting” component in the story, it’s really a subdued, thought-provoking experience that tactfully pokes at the events from a number of different angles.

The movie shuffles between 1917 and 1989. In the latter, there’s a series of interviews between Prof. Nichols (Harvey Keitel, The Last Temptation of Christ), who’s writing a book about the miracle of 1917, and the key witness to the miracle, Sister Lucia (Sonia Braga, Kiss of the Spider Woman). They’re in Coimbra, 203 km north of Lisbon and 85 km north of the town where it all happened, Fatima.

Their discussion is captivating as the professor plays the Devil’s advocate, so to speak, while Sister Lucia explains her upbringing and what transpired in that small town. As word spread (back at a time long before smartphones, back when news spread largely by word of mouth and the public square), Fatima became a pilgrimage destination.

In 1917, young Lucia Santos (Stephanie Gil, Terminator: Dark Fate) had a vision of Mother Mary. On cave walls adorned with ancient drawings and Lucia’s own work, the movie artfully screens images of World War I and the terrors waged in the trenches and in the air. Mary tells Lucia to pray the Rosary every day to bring peace and end the war. And she should come back every month for the next six months. During those visits, Lucia and her two cousins, Francisco and Jacinta, receive messages of hope, but also words of warning.

As Prof. Nichols digs into Lucia’s story, she reveals the family dynamics, political challenges and religious tensions of the time. It’s meaty stuff and both 81-year-old Keitel and 70-year-old Braga are in fine form with the verbal jousting. And that conceit — of the professor researching a book — is a solid way to pull a lot of ideas and emotions together.

It’s also striking to note the director and co-writer, Marco Pontecorvo, was born in Rome and has a diverse film history that includes cinematography on Game of Thrones.

Ave Maria

Was Lucia trying to replace her rather rough, neglectful mother with the Holy Mother? Was she crying out to escape the war and all the solitude? It was certainly a tough road for the little girl, constantly under watch as her mother, Maria Rosa (Lucia Moniz, Love Actually) insists Lucia must atone in order for her brother, Manuel, to return from the frontlines. If he doesn’t, Mother says, it’ll be Lucia’s fault.

Things don’t go well for Lucia when her mother insists her very own daughter is lying about what she’s witnessed. Was Lucia pathological? Or was she merely dishonest? To so many, it’s virtually a foregone conclusion her story is a fabrication. When Manuel goes missing in battle and later is presumed dead, it doesn’t bode well for the mother-daughter dynamic.

Fatima does a great job of raising questions and providing an open space for observation and discussion. Is it transcendence or limited human knowledge? It’s certainly a matter of faith. So, then, what are the boundaries for faith and who’s place is it to make that call?

Lucia’s environment collapses even further as the church swoops in, condemning her actions and alleging it’s the Devil trying her young soul. The mayor of the town, trying to advance political agendas within the recently formed Republic of Portugal (1910), also stands in firm opposition to Lucia and the attention she’s drawing to Fatima. Even some of the family’s neighbors spit venom.

When Lucia’s told if she simply admits she made it all up, all will be solved, it powerfully points to the upper hand easily prescribed to man-made rules. You can’t keep a secret from a priest, she’s told, on the one side. On the other, rallies are deemed illegal and the church is closed.

No matter how it’s divvied up, ultimately, beliefs — in God or otherwise — guide lifestyles and dictate actions. Sometimes, the end results can be damaging with remarkably restrictive (or overly liberal) rules and tunnel vision that precludes so many positive possibilities. But it works in 360 degrees; no one viewpoint is necessarily excluded from a contrarian view.

And therein lies the beauty of how the movie is structured. Nichols' conversations with Sister Lucia allow for further consideration of the extended history, both of the miracle and those involved. In one of those sequences, it’s revealed cousin Jacinta’s body was exhumed — and it was still completely intact.

Mere coincidence? Simply unidentified factors? It’s most definitely a stunning revelation. The movie mentions it and then lets it linger as yet another facet to the full story.

Believing Is Seeing

As the movie ends and historical, black-and-white photographs from the original event are displayed, even more facts are presented that continue to raise the bar for the value of the story and this movie.

The Miracle of the Sun was witnessed by some 70,000 people on a hillside in Fatima on Oct. 13, 1917. As prophesied by Mary to Lucia, her cousins both died so young, in the very next year, as victims of the Spanish Flu; in 2017, they were both canonized as saints.

There’s also a quote from Albert Einstein, “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.” Digging further into the material surrounding Fatima, there’s this one from St. Augustine, “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.”

And as the author of this review likes to say, “It’s better to believe in something positive than to believe in nothing.”

Those quotes perfectly sum up one of the core tensions in Fatima, tensions that continue today and will in all likelihood never stop. There are man’s rules and there are God’s rules. All of it turns into a spellbinding study of both progressive ideologies and conservative values standing staunchly intolerant in the face of pure tolerance. It’s a dynamic that pleads for coexistence while also being in a perpetual state of intransigence. “Knowledge should mean tolerance,” Nichols asserts. But that’s a relatively uncommon result.