Will the movies ever let religion back into the mainstream? It doesn’t seem likely, given the secular bent of most critics, festivals, and film awards. But the question could certainly occur to any thoughtful viewer of Marco Pontecorvo’s Fátima, which is set for release by Picturehouse in theaters and via PVOD on Aug. 28.
The film, which has been shown in pop-up previews for the last few weeks, is about the heavenly visions of three young children, who in 1917 said they encountered the Blessed Virgin Mary in a field near Fátima, Portugal. Believers flocked to the site. There may have been miracles. And Mary, said the children, confided three “secrets,” which became the core of an enduring Catholic cult that eventually found of the two young people, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, canonized as saints following their deaths in the 1918 flu pandemic, and made the third, Lùcia dos Santos, a subject of endless fascination during her long life as a nun.
Sister Lucia died in 2005, and has begun the march toward canonization. In Pontecorvo’s film, she is played by Stephanie Gil as a child, and Sonia Braga as an adult. Harvey Keitel, among the picture’s better-known supporting players, appears as a skeptical professor. He spars with Braga over the validity and import of the visions.
Putting aside their debate, and all the issues that are best left to certified movie critics, Fátima does leave you wondering: Is this a movie for believers, like, say, Miracles From Heaven and all of those somewhat successful Evangelical faith films of recent years? Or is it, consciously or otherwise, a sly bid for mainstream viewers who may not buy into the Marian doctrine, but who are more than ready for a scary cinematic trip to the supernatural?
Certainly, the mass audience has become accustomed to aliens, ghosts, zombies, demons, and even the occasional on-screen angel. So, are miracles and heavenly apparitions still beyond the willing suspension of disbelief?
I truly don’t know. But if ever the time were right, it would seem to be now, as viewing patterns and culture at large are shaken by coronavirus, economic instability, civil unrest, and all the usual rumblings along international fault lines.
The Fátima saga has always played as something of a geo-political horror story. The Virgin’s secrets, which included visions of Hell and an assassinated Pope, were framed against unimaginable calamity of World War I. She warned of greater destruction if humanity did not reform: That arrived in the shape of World War II. The children were accused of consorting with the Devil. But tens of thousands of believers, plus the merely curious, gathered in Fátima to witness what was supposed to be the final visitation, on Oct. 13, 1917. There may or may not have been a miracle, as many reported seeing the sun dance in the sky.
A final Apocalyptic warning was not to be revealed at the time. Decades later, Sister Lucia described a vision of the Church’s destruction from within. But some said the full secret was never disclosed. By 1962, more than a few Catholic schoolchildren—I was one—were praying rosaries to Our Lady of Fátima as the Cuban missile crisis threatened nuclear Holocaust. To us, the Third Secret seemed to be unfolding. It was scary. Like a Roland Emmerich movie, but worse.
At the moment, it’s hard to see those themes gripping Hollywood’s film Academy, if and when its members get around to voting for the next, virus-delayed, round of Oscars. Too much has changed since 1944, when Jennifer Jones was named Best Actress for her portrayal of Bernadette Soubirous in The Song Of Bernadette, another film about an earlier Marian visitation.
Still, it’s easy to imagine viewers getting interested in Fátima, much like the curious onlookers who showed up for the final visit in 1917. Maybe not as many as showed up for the silliness of Bruce Almighty, or the mind-games of The Da Vinci Code, or the over-blown rock monsters of Noah, or the sheer force The Passion Of The Christ (more than 16 years ago).
But enough to edge religion—in one of its more chilling manifestations—back toward the cinematic mainstream.