Most of us know the story, or at least its outline. But for me, it was history, Fatima statues and primarily warnings from the Mother of God. The recently released film produced by Origin Entertainment highlights the oldest of the three visionaries, Lucia, with an astounding and mesmerizing performance by fourteen-year-old Spanish actress Stephanie Gil. Astounding and mesmerizing because of the seeming ease with which Gil portrays the simple faith of a child. A child who becomes a visionary, seeing what no one else sees, hearing what no one else does and suffering the awful consequences of wisdom from everyone in her tiny village. Starting with her mother.
Taking thirteen years to make, (three years to write the screen play) this movie Fatima: A magnificent film about redemptive suffering, has so much to teach us citizens of our darkened 21st century. So many lessons for religious and non alike, that it is difficult to know where to start. So I’ll turn to the reviews.
Like these two from the Chicago Sun Times and Roger Ebert:
The moving film starring Sonia Braga and Harvey Keitel depicts the skepticism of a 10-year-old’s mother, mayor and priest. In the flourishing faith-based movie genre, this is one of the better ones.
You don’t necessarily expect to see Harvey Keitel pop into a movie about the Marian apparitions seen by three small children in 1917 Portugal, but there he is, clad in black, cloaked in skepticism and asking tough questions about Our Lady of Fatima.
Spoiler alert: Keitel’s Nichols isn’t an early 20th century Portuguese detective. He appears in flash-forward scenes as a non-believer author working on a book about the visions and is interviewing the elderly and graceful Sister Lucia (the great Brazilian actress Sonia Braga) about her claims she and her two cousins were repeatedly visited as children by the Virgin Mary.
To say Lucia’s claims are met with doubt is an understatement. The well-meaning parish priest, Father Ferreira (Joaquim de Almeida), is convinced the children are lying and calls on the church hierarchy to come disavow these dangerous lies.
The bulk of this beautiful, moving and nuanced faith-based film from director Marco Pontecorvo is set in and around Fatima, Portugal, with Stephanie Gil turning in fine work as 10-year-old Lucia, who, with her younger cousins Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco (Jorge Lamelas), is visited by the Virgin Mary (Joana Ribeiro), who tells Lucia she must pray hard and endure much suffering to help bring about the end of the war.
Marco Pontecorvo is the son of the legendary Gillo Pontecorvo (“Battle of Algiers”). He has worked mostly in television, and “Fatima” is his third feature. For “Fatima,” he and his co-screenwriters Valerio D’Annunzio and Barbara Nicolosi, use a framing device: in 1989, an author and professional skeptic (Harvey Keitel) visits the aging Sister Lúcia (Sônia Braga) in her Carmelite convent in Coimbra to interview her about her experiences. Over the course of the film, Keitel’s character raises questions, interrogates her testimony, and Sister Lúcia answers forthrightly, sometimes teasing him with little quips, a twinkle in her eye. (People who went to visit Lúcia over the years mention her sharp sense of humor.) These conversations provide space for the philosophical and theological questions the story presents. Keitel’s manner with Sister Lúcia is respectful and both allow the other to have their say. “Not everything unexplainable is necessarily transcendent,” Keitel says. Sister Lúcia responds, “Faith begins at the edge of understanding.” While there is a gap between the characters that will probably never be bridged, their conversation is invigorating, a healthy debate that avoids polarizing hostility.
Fundamental to faith is the utility of suffering, that our embrace of our own anguish, however small or great, can unite us to Christ in unique and mysterious ways. To much of the world that statement is, at the least, foolish, at the most, abhorrent, even evil. I understand, because I spent years of my life believing that the suffering and indignities I witnessed among too many patients in the academic medical center where I worked were appalling and unnecessary.
That suffering could be used to serve a purpose, be ennobling, even redemptive, for him who suffers and potentially others if so desired was alien, cruel, even crazy in my pre-Catholic reality. That is until the divine two by four: Upon the act of conversion, the divine ‘two by four’ flattens everything in its path. Just like St. Paul says, We are made new. Nothing is the same once the blinders are removed:
I recall the horror with which a friend greeted my new Catholic understanding of suffering quite clearly. The notion that Peter could use his anguish over losing his girl-friend was so shocking that he literally backed out the door of our house. His burgeoning interest in returning to the Catholic faith of his childhood vanished soon after that conversation.
who takes-and acts on- the words of the Lady in White literally. Despite the relentless, even unbelievable cruelty from all the adults surrounding her, the child obeys without question. Understanding that what is told to her is truth.
“You must pray hard and suffer much…” is accepted and practiced at each insult, threat and torture devised by the scheming bureaucrats of church and state. This film about redemptive suffering shouts loudly to those of us encased in futile hand-wringing about the sickness of all creation: humanity and our damaged earth.
“This was a remote faith-filled village in Portugal over a hundred years ago. Protected from the seduction of television, social media, riots, and the endless justifications of evil. How much worse would it be if she appeared today?” I opined to my husband as we sat watching the credits following the end of the movie.
“It was no different then, Lin, “John replied. “Those villagers were riddled with the same mean-spirited, petty, jealous, and small mindedness of all of us.”
It’s so easy to complicate sin…make it humongous, placing it outside of me, outside this heart which is all too eager to compare, demean and criticize another.