Current Issue #488

Film Review:

Marco Pontecorvo’s first film in English (although it should really be in Portuguese) tells a famous tale cautiously and with some lovely visuals, and yet, somehow, the result feels a little less than divine.

Director, co-writer and co-producer Pontecorvo (son of Gillo Pontecorvo of The Battle Of Algiers fame) began putting this together around the centenary of the events at Fátima, and there’s almost a calmness to the proceedings at times, which is rare in this genre of factual(ish) religious drama.

Unusually, the hysteria is kept to a minimum and the performances are strong, especially by the littlies, who are natural and a little grungy-looking, and not the glowing sorts you might be expecting. And if it often looks gorgeous then that’s because Pontecorvo is also a pro cinematographer (although it’s Vincenzo Carpineta working the camera here).

In a framing narrative set in 1989, a skeptical Professor Nichols (Harvey Keitel in nice mode) visits the elderly Sister Lúcia (Sônia Braga) in her Carmelite convent in Coimbra, and quizzes her about her experiences in Fátima back in 1917 when she and two cousins were visited by apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Nichols is a little sharp but Lúcia is a formidable and humourous figure, and we cut back and forth between this now and that then as Lúcia explains what happened and how she became part of one of the Catholic Church’s most celebrated miracles.

In 1917, as war rages beyond, the 10 year old Lúcia (Stephanie Gil) and her cousins Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francesco (Jorge Lamelas) are in the dusty fields when the Virgin appears, looking like She’s just stepped off the set of The Passion Of The Christ (and had a shower). Mary is played by Joana Ribeiro, and although the kids later described Her as “brighter than the sun” She seems quite human, which surely has something to do with Pontecorvo’s unease with depicting anything too goofily miraculous.

The children refuse to admit they’ve made the story up, and soon the word gets out and the God-fearing locals are either after them to hear about wonders or sniping at them in the street for lying. And more and more people arrive to get a glimpse of the magical young ‘uns, and Mary returns (although only the kids can see her, a major problem for critics and debunkers) to share with them a vaguely hokey vision of Hell and a glimpse of a mushroom cloud many years before ‘The Bomb’ was designed. The Devil also turns up exceedingly briefly too, in the form of a hairy geezer with a cheesy grin.

Sure to be adored by religious types despite its faults, this tries to maintain a wary and neutral tone and uses the Keitel character to raise some interesting doubts abouts Lúcia’s flashbacks, including the major question: why would the Virgin Mary (or the BVM if you’re a lover of the paranormal) only appear to three poor, lowly children? It’s just as thorny an issue as why exactly Jesus only sees fit to manifest on walls, windows, toast and tortillas.

But, as a wise man once said, you’ve got to have faith. You’ve gotta have faith…

Fatima (M) is now screening in selected cinemas

DM Bradley

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