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In many ways a bog-standard bible flick given a cursory wipeover with a humanist rag in the figure of Harvey Keitel – doing penance for Bad Lieutenant all those years ago – Fatima is just dramatic enough, lavish enough and well directed enough to escape the “it is what it is” label.

But first a bit of background for those not schooled in Catholic lore. During the First World War the Virgin Mary appears to three peasant Portuguese children who live in the village of Fatima, not once but several times. A cult grows up around the children, who report back on the Virgin’s latest utterances to the growing crowds, and eventually Mary entrusts them with three secrets, which eventually end up lodged at the Vatican for safekeeping. Though the secrets have all been divulged – the last one by Pope John Paul II in 2000, incidentally demonstrating that deities don’t list straight-talking among their skills – to this day Fatima remains a place of pilgrimage by the faithful.

Director Marco Pontecorvo wastes no time in getting the story going – Portuguese peasant girl Lucia (Stephanie Gil) is shown pictures from the front by some ethereal creature and reports back to her mama. Mama (Lúcia Moniz) is fretting over the lack of news about her soldier son, so has little time for Lucia’s silliness and encourages her to be more pious and self-denying to placate the gods and hasten her brother’s return.

On a twin track, decades in the future, a non-believing professor (Harvey Keitel) quizzes the elderly Lucia, who has spent the intervening years in a nunnery. Did she make it all up is his essential question, and the nun finds herself as incapable of straightforward answers as the writer of the secrets.

People of a certain age will have seen any number of this sort of film, the sort of thing generally funded by a Christian foundation convinced that they’re in the “revealed truth” business, and so to add any actual drama – or psychological nuance – would be tantamount to blasphemy.

Harvey Keitel, behind a metal screen
Can you see Harvey Keitel in this picture?

Oldies will also take no comfort from the fact that it’s Sonia Braga playing the elderly Lucia, or that Marco Pontecorvo is the son of Gillo, director of the majestic The Battle of Algiers, though the sight of Harvey Keitel looking spry after looking so rickety in The Painted Bird just a few weeks ago is some compensation.

The scenes set back in ye olden times are shot in sepia, that tired signifier, and the acting varies from the competent – Goran Visnjic gets about the best of it as the progressive pooh-poohing mayor of Fatima – to performances so woeful that you don’t know whether to blame the actors or a screenplay that forces them up verbal blind alleys.

There is a nuanced film in here somewhere – Lucia is on the cusp of puberty and her “visions” could be hormonally inspired, an act of defiance against her mother, or even an attempt to give wing to her mother’s prayers for the safe return of her boy.

And as the teenager comes under increasing pressure to recant – superstitious locals, suspicious priests, an atheist mayor, a mother convinced the daughter’s nonsense is the cause of the now officially missing-in-action son – the edges of a more secular film about human belief systems emerge.

Here, Pontecorvo periodically manages to get Fatima aloft, and also in the impressive rain-lashed crowd scenes that come towards the end of the film, when news of the apparitions and the holy children starts to bring in the faithful in their droves.

The film will also bring in the faithful. There are plenty enough.

Fatima – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

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