Marco Pontecorvo directs a thoughtful look at why we often choose faith over fact.
Before there was any sort of religion or science, there were only two categories of things: that which we know as a species, and what we can’t explain. That which we couldn’t explain tended to sprout religions before science, using the idea of a God (or multiple gods) to explain why the sun sets in the sky, or how the seasons came to be, while science came later to provide more logical explanations. Marco Pontecorvo’s new film Fatima explores a society split between these two categories, and its failure to suppress a population’s devotion to the unexplainable in favor of modern secular society.
Fatima is based on the real-life experience of Lucia Dos Santos (played as a child by Stephanie Gils, and Sonia Braga as an adult), a nun who claimed to have several visions of the Virgin Mary as a child in 1917. Gils is the best version of a child actor, stubborn in the face of pressure from both secular and Catholic officials to recant her story, and awestruck in her brushes with the divine. As more and more pilgrims show up, begging her to heal their sickness and lead them to God, she remains a believable, terrified child who was forced into a religious battle beyond her understanding.
In a later period, Braga plays an older Lucia, defending her visions to the atheist Professor Nichols (Harvey Keitel). Keitel plays the Richard Dawson skeptic well, serving as a dependable foil to Braga, and is instantly familiar to anyone who’s spent time around clergymen. Lucia’s practiced answers and knowing amusement at Professor Nichols’ questioning speaks to the years we see and the years we don’t, during which she was undoubtedly bombarded with these questions. She has no explanation for what she saw other than that she saw God. In Lucia’s mind, this is not a bad thing. Like many holy people both before, and after her, she delights in not knowing.
God is a minor character, the power of belief is the focus of Fatima.
The specific brand of faith in Pontecorvo and Valerio D’Annunzio’s script is interesting. Lucia’s visions aren’t the peace and love version of God, but rather and angrier, older version. The Lady of Fatima is both angelic and angry, kind to the children she reveals herself to, but demanding that they pray more and spread her message. Outside of these visions, Pontecorvo doesn’t explore the implications of the Virgin Mary’s message. Instead, he uses Lucia’s experience as an opportunity to explore belief as a concept, and how the pressures of a secular society affect that belief.
The secular world’s pressure is represented by Artur (Goran Visnjic), the Mayor of Lucia’s village. Visnjic’s portrayal of a beleaguered, well-meaning politician trying to fight the superstition of the community he serves ties the film together. He gets to be the rare antagonist who isn’t evil. He isn’t actively anti-religion, he’s cracking under the pressure of a larger government. This is combined with the growing pressure of reading off the names of dead World War I soldiers, and his wife’s insistence on standing with Lucia and the pilgrims that flock to her. The vast groups of people disobeying their government feels almost anarchistic, in that Pontecorvo is depicting a population choosing to go against their government for the chance to have their beliefs confirmed.
Fatima is not an average faith drama. Instead of the preaching taking place in the genre’s powerhouses like the God’s Not Dead franchise, Pontecorvo lets the devotion of his characters speak for itself. God is a minor character, the power of belief is the focus of Fatima. The glorious power of accepting that you may be wrong, but you’re going to keep believing anyway. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything more radical than that.
Fatima is available on VOD starting August 28th.