I should start this review out with a mild disclaimer: I’m not Catholic. I’m a practicing Evangelical Protestant who enjoys Catholic art but I am not confirmed and don’t personally share many Catholic core beliefs (heck I’m a pretty liberal Christian in many respects). That said, I’ve been curious to see the movie Fatima for a very personal reason.
I was recently on vacation in Niagara Falls, New York and spent a few afternoons burning time by looking through local tourist traps and restaurants. At one point, I was exploring the Fort Niagara Museum and I consulted a pamphlet counter and one of them was for the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. I had recently explored a Catholic convent in San Diego and found the experience enjoyable so I decided to visit the shrine on a whim. I walked around and sat before a massive statue of the Virgin Mary. Without thinking much, I left a quarter on the statue and left.
Then I got in my car, looked at my YouTube downloads list and sorted through a few movie trailers I’d downloaded earlier that day. One of them was for the movie Fatima which was being rereleased by AMC Theater. Keep in mind, I had never heard of “Fatima” and hadn’t been aware it was another name for the Virgin Mary. It was a WEIRD coincidence seeing two “Fatima” related things in one day without prompting and one I’m not exactly sure how to consider what/if that meant anything.
Regardless, I decided it was a sign I should probably see the movie (not that this required much coaxing).
Fatima, the movie, is an independent Catholic drama film based on the real life supposed Miracle of the Sun. In 1917 during the First World War, 70,000 Portuguese Christians and non-believers gathered around three children who claimed that they had spoken with an apparition of the Virgin Mary. When the crowd gathered, the sun supposedly began to dance through the sky, careen towards the Earth and emit multi-colored light. One of the girls also claimed to have been given a vision of Hell which she was told to keep secret until years later.
The movie more or less follows the canonized events as they’re recognized by the Catholic Church.
For what it’s worth, Fatima actually is a pretty good Christian movie. I don’t usually give that much meaning because my outstanding Fatwa against the Christian movie industry remains very much intact. Regardless, I would say this stands as one of the more impressive examples of independent Christian filmmaking alongside Luther and The Chosen.
It doesn’t feel cheap. The special effects are used sparingly and effectively. The actors, mostly no-names, all show up to play and do a very good job with their parts. Event the lead child actor does pretty good with her very challenging performance that requires her to be the lead character and hold up most of the plot.
Her name is Lucia dos Santos. In real life, she was the only one of the three children to survive into old age. She joined the Catholic Church as a nun and lived until 2005. As the movie depicts, her experience of seeing the Virgin Mary ends up being more challenging than encouraging. She’s immediately persecuted by her parents, her priest, her neighbors and her local politicians who are all struggling with their own problems during the first world war. Portugal was going through a time of enlightenment in 1917 and many in power didn’t want superstitious miracles and mass hysteria in the countryside. It certainly didn’t help that the families were forced every day to learn how many of their sons were dying on the western front of the war every day.
Lucia and her family only seem to suffer because of her vision. Her parents financially suffered because of events of the miracle didn’t believe her claims for months. As a result, the young girl is left to ponder why her spiritual mother is asking her to suffer as deeply as she seems to have been asked to.
That suffering is the heart of the movie. Lucia ends up going through something of her own retelling of the story of Christ. She’s mocked, berated, accused of being a liar and a disruptor and nearly persecuted by the state AND the church establishment for her insolence. In the end though, the miracle ends up vindicating her.
Of course, there are outstanding questions to the narrative of the film and the real life event. Much of what the Virgin Mary seemed to prophesy seems to have come to pass (namely predictions about the end of WWI, a second major war and times of great suffering) but others didn’t. The film itself acknowledges much of these claims and tries to depict the events in such a way that you might understand why Sister Lucia would continue to believe in them despite all of her experiences and inability to explain them.
Even from a pure storytelling level, it’s certainly not a perfect movie. There are a lot of weird elements to the story that feel awkwardly executed or superfluous to the ultimate point of the movie. There’s a weird framing device where Harvey Keitel (really) shows up as a skeptic writing a book on Sister Lucia’s experiences but that ultimately doesn’t go anywhere. He disappears 2/3rds of the way into the movie and isn’t mentioned again. There are several subplots in the movie like this that are setup and then just end abruptly without much resolution.
There are also weird plot holes such as one very specific shot during the miracle where a camera-man appears to be filming the miracle as it’s happening. As far as I can tell, no real footage of the Miracle of the Sun exists.
Overall, it’s a very low budget period-piece but it’s a movie that is smartly produced. It managed to use it’s resources judiciously and produces a film that I think most Catholic viewers will get a lot out of. It’s a very heartwarming story about the nature of suffering, family and modern religious persecution that I would happily watch again. I can’t say I necessarily got some sort of religious experience out of it like the weird coincidence I experienced seemed to suggest I would but I’m glad I gave it a chance!