“Fatima” is a little more thoughtful than you may expect from its religious story subject. As your average agnostic atheist, I naturally observed its faith-based drama with some degree of skepticism from the very beginning, but it engaged me enough thanks to its earnest storytelling and several solid performances, and I could appreciate its admirably even-handed attitude between two different viewpoints hovering over the story.
The movie is based on an unbelievable real-life story surrounding three children who lived in Fátima, Portugal in 1917, and the opening scene shows one of them having a sort of spiritual experience inside a cave outside her town on one summer day of 1917. At that time, Portugal and its people were going through a very difficult time mainly due to the World War I, and Lúcia (Stephanie Gil), the youngest child of António (Marco d’Almeida) and Maria Rosa (Lúcia Moniz), comes to see the visions of her older brother struggling and suffering at the frontline shortly after encountering the apparition of a mysterious lady in the cave.
Although Maria Rosa does not believe much what her daughter tells her, she has been quite concerned about her oldest child’s safety just like her other family members. Whenever the mayor of the town is about to announce the latest list of soldiers killed or gone missing, she and many other anxious mothers in the town cannot help but feel very nervous, and this routine always ends with a contrasting mix of relief and grief among them.
Meanwhile, Lúcia happens to encounter another apparition of that mysterious lady while spending some time along with her two younger cousins Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco (Jorge Lamelas) on the field outside their village. At first, they playfully try to shout “Ave Maria!” to the sky, but then, what do you know, something odd begins to happen around them, and then they soon come to behold that mysterious lady one by one. Although this lady does not tell them at all who the hell she is, Lúcia and her cousins come to believe that this lady is none other than the Blessed Virgin Mary, and they certainly feel elevated by her momentary but undeniably sublime presence.
Lúcia and her cousins later promise to themselves that they will not tell this to anyone, but, of course, they cannot easily keep it secret from the adults around them, and the words on what they allegedly witnessed are quickly spread around the village and then all over the country. As they sincerely follow the instructions from the Blessed Virgin Mary, more people come to the town for getting blessed by her, and the mayor, who is not so religious compared to many others in the town, is not amused by that at all while also pressured a lot by his superiors in Lisbon.
And the people representing the Catholic Church are not so amused either. In case of a local priest, he has doubts on the claims of Lúcia and her two cousins, and he and his superiors are also quite concerned about whether this will cause an unnecessary trouble with the secular government of Portugal. They subsequently ask many questions to Lúcia and her two cousins, but Lúcia and her two cousins continue to stick to what they believe – even when they come to have their own doubt later in the story.
The screenplay by director/co-producer Marco Pontecorvo and Valerio D’Annunzio, which is based on the story by Barbara Nicolosi, also focuses on the increasingly strained relationship between Lúcia and her parents. Although she is a very religious person, Maria Rosa cannot easily believe her daughter as struggling with her hard and difficult daily life everyday, and her conflict with her daughter is further exacerbated by her accumulating anxiety over her oldest kid’s safety. While he tries to understand his daughter as much as he can, António soon finds himself quite frustrated due to what his daughter unintentionally causes, and Lúcia consequently becomes conflicted over her belief on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Why did the Blessed Virgin Mary choose plain poor kids like her and her two cousins? And why does she have others around them suffer a lot because of their belief?
While the story eventually heads to an expected finale, the movie balances itself between conviction and skepticism as occasionally dropping by a part set in 1989. As listening to the story from older Lúcia played by Sônia Braga, Professor Nichols (Harvey Keitel) expresses his reasonably skeptical viewpoint from time to time, and older Lúcia calmly sticks to her story while gently recognizing the gap between their very different viewpoints. Although it comes to side a bit with Lúcia’s viewpoint in the end, the movie remains fairly even-sided on the whole, and Sônia Braga and Harvey Keitel, two dependable troupers who have always been interesting to watch during last several decades, bring some playful mood to their seemingly perfunctory scenes.
Overall, “Fatima” is more considerate and thoughtful than those crude faith-based drama films which blatantly force their belief upon their audiences, and Pontecorvo, who previously directed “Letters to Juliet” (2010), handles the story and characters with enough care and attention in addition to drawing the strong natural performances from his three young performers, who hold their own spots well amongst their older co-performers. Yes, there are surely more serious and thoughtful films about religion and faith out there, but the movie did a good job anyway, so I will not grumble for now.