Venerable Fulton Sheen described October 13, 1917, as “the birthday of the modern world.” He noted, “It was on that day that the forces of good and evil seemed to reach their peak.” As the Bolshevik Revolution began in Russia and World War I raged on, a ten-year-old Portuguese girl named Lúcia dos Santos, along with her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, led tens of thousands of people to witness “the Miracle of the Sun,” the last in a peculiar series of Marian apparitions. There are countless testimonies about the event, leading Archbishop Sheen to quip that even atheistic journalists admitted, “This actually happened, but we hope no one will interpret it in a divine way.”
Many people, including the Church itself, did indeed interpret it in a divine way. In 1930, the Fatima visions and Our Lady of Fatima were declared “worthy of belief.” Francisco and Jacinta died of influenza in 1918 and were canonized by Pope Francis in 2017. Lúcia lived a long life as a nun and died in 2005. Her canonization process began after Pope Benedict XVI waved the usual five-year waiting period. Untold millions have been nourished by the graces dispensed by Our Lady of Fatima, and millions of pilgrims visit the site each year.
It all began with the endearing faith of children, afraid at the state of the world but trusting in God’s providence and Mary’s protection. This faith is the centerpiece of the new film Fatima, directed by Marco Pontecorvo and written by Pontecorvo, Valerio D’Annunzio, and Barbara Nicolosi. The film is headlined by the American Harvey Keitel, familiar from films by Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino (among many others); but the rest of the cast is a European ensemble, including Goran Visnjic as the atheist mayor, and Stephanie Gil as young Lúcia.
Fatima is successful because it is a kids’ story. It’s a classic tale of children knowing something that grown-ups do not, and of believing something that makes them look foolish and disobedient . . . until everyone else finally wises up. The special characteristic of Fatima is that Lúcia, Francisco, and Jacinta aren’t wandering into a parallel universe or discovering buried treasure. Instead, their adventure is appointed for them by the Lord. They meet the Mother of God, who, of course, chooses people most open to belief to relay her message to the world.
The writers frame the story of the children in 1917 around scenes between a much older Sister Lúcia (Sônia Braga) and a skeptical academic (Keitel). These moments bring the viewer closer to the present day, posing questions about the truth or falsehood of the apparitions that the world still asks. The inclusion of these forward-flashes is understandable, but they are the least enjoyable parts of the film. In contrast, the skepticism—even indignation—of Lúcia’s own devout mother, played beautifully by Lúcia Moniz, creates the conditions for the audience to want to believe.
The director’s depiction of Our Lady in the various apparitions is important. It is heavenly, but also human. The viewer always sees what the children see and hear (or, at times, do not see and hear). But the camera often turns to the ever-growing groups of people who “have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). The pivotal scene of the Miracle of the Sun puts us right in the midst of this weird and wonderful experience. As Archbishop Sheen intimated, people explain weird things in many different ways. But because of the film’s excellent storytelling, faithful filmgoers, like the faithful witnesses of the event itself, will be compelled to drop to their knees and pull out their rosaries.
As a relatively new Catholic, I knew almost nothing about the three secrets of Fatima and took a deep dive into them after watching this film. Long after the events of 1917, Sister Lúcia explained that the children had first been shown a vision of hell, and then learned that a great war would come if people did not cease offending God. Connected to this second secret was the command to consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The third and final secret remains the source of some controversy, and has to do with the death of the pope and other leaders. The film makes reference to the secrets, but does not dwell on them in a way that could distract from the compelling story of the children’s usefulness to the Lord in pouring his grace upon his people, then and now.
The world has changed drastically since the events that Fatima depicts. It would be hard to argue today that the people of the world are offending God less than we were in 1917. In light of our current circumstances, Archbishop Sheen and others may have been right to identify what the Portuguese children witnessed as a cosmic tipping point. In telling their story, Fatima inspires us, as we discern the signs of the times, to remember that the kingdom of heaven belongs to children, and that we must all cultivate a childlike faith in our heavenly Father, as well as an ardent devotion to our Blessed Mother.
By the end of Fatima, I felt the same exhilaration I get when the kids in The Goonies save their town, or when Elliot helps E.T. get back to his own world. But in this case, it’s real, and the stakes are high.
Fatima is a high-quality live action production, and far superior to the many Christian re-enactment movies and television shows. People of all ages will enjoy this film, and even nonbelievers will come away pondering the possibility that the will of God is more mysterious, and more wonderful, than they had considered.
Fatima opens in theaters and on demand nationwide on August 28.