FATIMA, in central Portugal, famously boasts a pilgrimage shrine. It’s also the name of a new film (Cert. 15), in which a noted sceptic, Professor Nichols (Harvey Keitel), visits a convent in the city of Coimbra. He meets Sister Lúcia (Sônia Braga), an elderly nun recounting her part in a historic event of 1917. The conversations between pragmatic academic and spiritual ascetic illuminate a decades-old mystery and set the stage for a story that has fascinated millions for more than a century.
While wandering in a cave near her home in the hamlet of Aljustrel, on the outskirts of Fatima, ten-year-old Lúcia (Stephanie Gil) is apprehended by an angel who shows her what carnage world war is creating. It has claimed the lives of many young men in Lúcia’s village. Later, while tending her family’s flock of sheep, Lúcia and her younger cousins Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco (Jorge Lamelas) are visited by another apparition, this time of an Iberian-looking Virgin Mary (played by Joana Ribeiro).
The “Lady of the Rosary”, as she calls herself, tells the children they must pray and suffer to bring an end to the deadly conflict. She also tells them that she will return to the same spot every month for six months. Lúcia’s devout mother, Maria (Lúcia Moniz, best known as Colin Firth’s sweetheart in Love Actually), doesn’t believe the children. She feels under pressure. Humility prevents her considering the possibility that the Blessed Mother would appear to her daughter. Moniz is spellbinding as one whose belief begs help with her unbelief.
On 13 October 1917, masses gather to witness the children’s prophecy that the Virgin Mary would appear and perform miracles. The film depicts what is known as the Miracle of the Sun as much through nature’s transcendent beauty as the dramatic solar activity described in contemporary accounts.
The film reprises 1952’s The Miracle of Our Lady of Fátima to a degree. The emphasis then was on the prosecution of members of the clergy and religious orders, and the closure of churches in the aftermath of the Republican Party’s coup d’état. Whatever happened at Fatima managed to reunite a divided country.
The director this time is Marco Pontecorvo, son of Gillo, maker of the award-winning 1966 film The Battle of Algiers. In a more secular age, the insertion of a fictitious professor into the narrative gives us a film within a film. This allows things to be played in two ways. Pontecorvo acknowledges the undeniability of thousands’ seeing something that they couldn’t explain, but, because it can’t be explained, the film gives scope for people who don’t believe.
Fatima is an even-handed film, neither religious propaganda nor sceptical rant. In one vision, the Virgin Mary says that the world needs peace. Who could argue, but didn’t we know it already? As end credits roll, the punchline is Andrea Bocelli’s rendition of “Gratia Plena”, Latin for “full of grace”. Then, in case we missed the point, children sing it in 12 different languages that become one.
In cinemas and on digital platforms.