At least 29 faith-based films played in U.S. theatres during 2019, such as 'Unplanned,' 'Run the Race,' 'Breakthrough,' and 'Overcomer.' These movies inspire believers and provide an opportunity for an uplifting experience for religious families (they can also be used as outreaches, since people who are hesitant to come to church might accept an invitation to see a movie). As someone who goes to church once a year (Christmas Day), I can't say that faith-based cinema is my jam. I still haven't watched Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' and I slogged through Ridley Scott's 'Exodus: Gods and Kings'. Do Darren Aronofsky's 'Noah' and 'Mother!' count? Were they supposed to be comedic? But I enjoy what Harvey Keitel is doing with his late-period career (Paolo Sorrentino's 'Youth' is a minor masterpiece), which led me to watching 'Fatima'.
A fact-based drama from director and co-writer Marco Pontecorvo, 'Fatima' recounts a remarkable series of religious events - namely, the 1917 appearance of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children near the Portuguese city of the title. It has been an inspiration to millions over the years and led to Lúcia dos Santos being accorded the title "Servant of God" - the first major step towards canonisation.
While the local men are away fighting in WWI and people pensively waiting at home for their return, 10-year-old Lúcia (played by Stephanie Gil) sees the Angel of Peace (Ivone Fernandes-Jesus), who hints at what's to come. Then Lúcia and her cousins Jacinta Marta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco Marta (Jorge Lamelas) are visited by a beautiful woman "from heaven", who is, of course, the Blessed Virgin (Joana Ribeiro, 'The Man who Killed Don Quixote').
Not so wonderful are the reactions of Lúcia's parents, especially her severe mother (nicely portrayed by Portuguese actress Lúcia Moniz). The country had overthrown its constitutional monarchy only in 1910, and there was a great deal of anticlerical sentiment emanating from Lisbon, so Fátima's secular officials weren't too chuffed either, leading to the imprisonment of the children. The top local official is played with sinister efficiency by Goran Višnjić ('The Counselor'), who seems to be slowly morphing into Kevin Kline with age.
The apparition gives the children three secrets. The first, a vision of Hell, is portrayed vividly - Hell that is, not so much the children's reactions to witnessing it. They seem to take it pretty well. The second secret, the consecration of Russia to the Virgin's Immaculate Heart is mentioned. To be fair, there's not much to show about that. The third secret, the papal assassination and the persecution of clergy, is as dazzling and disturbing as it was prophetic. Questions about the third secret are addressed in flash-forwards to 1989 Coimbra and a fictional meeting between Sister Lúcia (Sonia Braga, 'Bacurau', 'The Jesus Rolls') and a sceptical Professor Nichols (Harvey Keitel, 'The Irishman'). Finally, there is the Miracle of the Sun.
While Christian faith has some great yarns, faith-based films can be held back by being too reverential or, conversely, lose some meaning by being too irreverent with the material.
Faith-based films provide the service of being safe for their audience: scrupulously clean and family-friendly in their content, unchallenging in their storytelling, and feel-good in their arcs. Their quality seems largely incidental to many of the people who seek them out, and critical derision sometimes seems to make audiences embrace them more. While Christian faith has some great yarns, faith-based films can be held back by being too reverential or, conversely, lose some meaning by being too irreverent with the material. Generally, what matters is that they confirm (or pander to) the beliefs and the world view of their viewership. In any event, Pontecorvo doesn't rock any boats here, although he does sneak in a bit of back and forth between Professor Nichols and Sister Lúcia about the metaphysical rules of miracles.
The visuals and talented child actors keep your interest engaged whenever the story lags. Pontecorvo, who began his career as a cinematographer on TV series like 'Game of Thrones' and 'Rome', and Vincenzo Carpineta collaborate to create hallucinatory visions and a vivid portrayal of Aljustrel, Lúcia's hometown just outside of Fátima. Andrea Bocelli also chimes in with an original song 'Gratia Plena' ('Full of Grace'), composed by Italian composer Paolo Buonvino.
Depending on your faith levels, your mileage will vary, but 'Fatima' is a handsomely filmed and respectful retelling of a true story, one that sees people still flocking to the site each year, over 100 years later, to try and catch a glimpse of what those children saw.