It’s no surprise that religious faith and scientific inquiry often struggle to see eye to eye.
Historically, there has always been a tension between believing in Divine miracles and a more pragmatic approach to the world. This division serves as the core of Italian cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo’s latest film, Fatima, which delves into the plausibility of historical accounts of spiritual visions and how that affects the people involved.
Set in 1917, Fatima tells the story of three young children in Fátima, Portugal who report seeing visions of the Virgin Mary. Committed to their stories, their revelations inspire those who believe but also anger those in power who simply cannot understand how this could have taken place. Although their opponents demand that they recant their stories, the children remain steadfast in their belief. As word spreads of their vision, tens of thousands of religious faithful flock to the site in the hopes of seeing a miracle themselves.
Co-written and directed by Pontecorvo, Fatima is an engaging drama that puts the question of faith and its relationship to history front and centre. Though the narrative moves slowly at times, Fatima wants to take its time in wrestling with the balance between truth and fiction, especially as it relates to the Divine. Beautifully shot in sweeping landscapes, Pontecorvo uses his background in cinematography to accentuate the isolation of the people of Fatima. In doing so, he also makes them small at the hands of their surroundings, visually humbling them in the face of perceived larger spiritual forces. (It’s worth noting that, in present day conversations, scenes are filmed in close proximity which has the opposite effect by giving balance to spiritual and scientific arguments.)
Given the film’s subject matter, much of the cast does a good job playing their characters with reverence, even if it doesn’t always feel that they have much to do. However, it’s the conversation between present day Sister Lucia (Sonia Braga) and Professor Nichols (Harvey Keitel) that provides the most energy to the film.
By telling the story in flashback, Pontecorvo is able to question the validity of Sister Lucia’s claims from a distance but also with respect. As Professor Nichols continues to press her arguments, he views her stubborn refusal to admit that she has been lying with increasing contempt yet the film does not judge her. Instead, Fatima portrays her with strength and courage for holding on for her convictions. Though Nichols may not believe her claims, what matters most in Fatima is that Sister Lucia believes it. To her, this was an encounter with the Divine and it changed the course of her life (not to mention those who also were present).
Interestingly, Sister Lucia’s confidence in the Divine seems threatening to Professor Nichols’ more practical worldview. Through his relentless interrogation, he seems bent on pushing her to ‘confess’ not to disprove her story but rather to validate his own skepticism. In other words, as he continues to press, Nichols’ dependence on what is tangible appears rooted in his own fear to acknowledge that there are things in the world that he cannot understand. This tension between the scientific and the spiritual anchors the film and showcases the challenges in finding common ground between the two points of view. (In this way, it’s also worth noting that these conversations also reflect the tone of similar discussions within our modern-day context as well.)
In the end, Fatima is an interesting look at the events surrounding the supposed miracle that took place in Portugal. However, the real power of the film lies not within the full story of the event but whether or not such events ever took place and the consequences of that, if true.
Fatima is on VOD on August 28th, 2020.