On Cinema

Catholic tastes

Christopher Silvester on films of faith and the canonisation of three children’s divine visions

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

“All seers are de facto unstable,” says the investigating rationalist, Professor Nichols (played by Harvey Keitel), at the outset of an imagined 1989 interview with Sister Lúcia (played by Sonia Braga), a framing device for re-telling the story of the 1917 Marian apparitions at Fátima in Marco Pontecorvo’s new film of that name.

Fátima shows how difficult it is to make a film that will satisfy both the faithful and unbelievers

Professor Nichols did not exist, but he serves the dramatic function of questioning Sister Lúcia, now a Carmelite nun, about the visions she had as a child, which are shown in extended flashbacks.

Religious movies have been part of cinema since Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), but Fátima shows how difficult it is to make a film that will satisfy both the faithful and unbelievers.

In May 1917, three shepherd children, 10-year-old Lúcia Santos and her younger cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, while playing in the woods, began seeing visions of a lady who called herself the Lady of the Rosary and were told three secrets, the first a vision of hell, the second a prediction that the First World War would end but that there would be another war unless Russia converted from atheistic Communism.

The third was not disclosed by Sister Lúcia until 1944 and then only to the Bishop of Leiria. It was later disclosed to the Vatican, which eventually announced that the Third Secret had concerned the future persecution of Christians.

The progressive mayor of the nearby town is disturbed by the encouragement that these visions give to popular piety while Portugal is at war and arrests the children in an effort to make them recant.

The local Catholic hierarchy, in their eagerness to reach an accommodation with the secular republic, find the visions of the shepherd children inconvenient.

Jacinta and Francisco died in the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic, but Lúcia survived. The children’s visions were officially recognized by the Catholic Church in 1930, and Francisco and Jacinta Marto were canonised in 2017.

Pontecorvo and his co-writers have taken several liberties with the historical record. For example, they omit to mention that the actual mayor was a Freemason and that he imprisoned the children and threatened them with being boiled alive.

And some Catholics feel the film has cheated in its depiction of the children’s spirituality. They fasted, went without water on hot days, wore ropes around their waist at night to disturb their sleep, and ate bitter acorns. The children in the film barely suffer at all.

The vision of Our Lady is naturalistic on the one hand — she is not floating on a cloud, as the children claimed — but the actress’s model looks and glossy lips are a gross error (Pasolini would surely have cast a non-professional with a true peasant face).

Marco Pontecorvo has a devout Catholic mother and was baptised as a Catholic although he doesn’t follow a particular religion. His father was Gillo Pontecorvo, the director who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for his extraordinary The Battle of Algiers (1966), a film, in the neo-realist tradition, which manages to be even-handed in its depiction of the adversaries in the Algerian war of independence.

An agnostic Jew, Gillo wrote a screenplay about the life of Jesus, but he refused to agree to the casting of a movie star in the leading role, so it was never filmed. Marco is a cinematographer (with several episodes of Rome and Game of Thrones to his credit) and a TV director. I can’t say I’m a fan of his style: there are too many stabilised hand-held shots for my taste and too many overhead drone shots — predictable visual grammar for streaming-giant series these days. However, the one sequence that is well rendered is the climax of the film, its depiction of the Miracle of the Sun.

On 13 October, 1917, a crowd estimated at between 30,000 and 70,000 of the faithful assembled at Fátima because the children had prophesied that the Lady would reveal her identity and give a sign of God’s presence. The crowd contained newspaper editors, reporters and newsreel cameramen, many of them sceptics, was drenched with rain when the skies brightened and the sun appeared to dance and swoop down for a period of around ten minutes, causing the crowd’s clothing to become bone-dry.

Of course, your interest in Fátima will be coloured by your own religious views. But Catholic films are still able to attract substantial audiences in Catholic Europe as well as in the Americas.

Catholic films are still able to attract substantial audiences in Catholic Europe as well as in the Americas

If you wish to discover how sublime a faith film can be, allow me to recommend Augusto Genina’s 1949 film Heaven Over the Marshes (Cielo Sulla Palude), which tells the story of Maria Goretti (1890-1902), a young peasant girl who rebuffs the amorous advances of a neighbouring farmer’s son, who thereupon stabs her fourteen times. As she lies dying she forgives the lustful youth.

Genina’s film came out after Maria Goretti was beatified as a virgin-martyr, but before her canonisation in 1950. There is no vision of a supernatural being in the film and no miracle, and the assault is filmed with enough detail for us to appreciate both its violence and its sexual intent.

The great critic André Bazin described it as “that rare thing, a good Catholic film … Maria Goretti’s sainthood is served in the only valid manner possible, by a film that expressly sets out not to demonstrate it.”

This remarkable film is available on DVD with English subtitles from the excellent MovieDetective.net.

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