Harvey Keitel, Sonia Braga, Stephanie Gil, Goran Visnjic
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…presents us with a story that is baffling superstitious twaddle, expecting the viewer to go on the ride.
The 1917 first-hand accounts of three Portuguese peasant children that the Virgin Mary had appeared to them, was adapted for the screen by Hollywood in 1952 as The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. It claimed to be based ‘in truth’, gleaned from eyewitness testimonies. Mary purportedly shared visions with the kids, of wars to come and impending doom. These events could apparently only be tackled with fervent prayer, self-sacrifice and devotion to her and God. Following a number of successive appearances to the children, a solar event involving the sun ‘zig-zagging’ across the sky was witnessed by a large number of slack jawed yokels, rubberneckers and pilgrims assembled in the town. Apparently, these stratospheric religious fireworks were rock-solid evidence enough for the gathered throngs.
Director/Cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo (who is the son of Gillo Pontecorvo, helmer of the seminal The Battle of Algiers) adapts the same story here, albeit in a less obvious and overly reverential tone. Pontecorvo pits two timelines against each other, both showing disbelieving antagonists: in 1989, Lucia Dos Santos (played in her older years by Sonia Braga) fields an interview with a sceptic academic (Harvey Keitel) that then kickstarts the other timeline, being her 1917 visions of the Virgin Mary when Lucia was a young girl (played by Stephanie Gil).
The young Lucia is adamant about what she’s experienced, though her parents and the local priests are sniffy about the believability of her story. She ultimately faces a distinctly antagonistic disbelief, personified in the local mayor (Goran Visnjic).
Beautifully photographed and well-crafted from a technical standpoint, the predominant issue here is audience investment. The story isn’t told from the more interesting perspective of the parents and priests struggling to believe the story. It’s not interested in deconstructing the constituent parts of an ironclad spiritual belief and then asking us as the audience to question our own beliefs. Instead, it presents us with a story that is baffling superstitious twaddle, expecting the viewer to go on the ride.
If you don’t believe the true life accounts of these children, you’re locked out of deep engagement with the film and the whole affair feels rote and pedestrian, whereas if you do believe these events occurred then you’ll probably be annoyed at the reported changes the filmmakers have made to the real life accounts, in order to accommodate a wider audience.