Ruadhán Jones speaks to director Marco Pontecorvo on bringing the Virgin’s apparition to the big screen
W hen you are adapting an event that is the subject of great devotion, it’s a hard balance to strike between giving people what they expect and making a film that tells you something new. The temptation can be to give the reins to a great devotee, who will be eager to do it justice and who will treat the subject reverently.
The danger is that they will produce a film that is worthy, but unexciting, a useful catechetical tool rather than a lively and entertaining story. It shows the shrewdness of the producers of Fatima, the latest film about the famous apparition of the Virgin Mary, that they chose a director for his skills as a filmmaker first and foremost.
Mr Marco Pontecorvo bares a significant name for film fans, following in the footsteps of his father Gillo, director of the provocative 1966 classic The Battle for Algiers and quite a revolutionary filmmaker in his day. But it wasn’t for the name that Mr Pontecorvo was chosen – it was for his ability to direct child actors, demonstrated in his acclaimed feature debut Pa-Ra-Da.
The story of Fatima centres around three Portuguese children – Lúcia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto – who witnessed a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1916 and in 1917. They were young, not yet 10, and yet were given visions that demanded degrees of maturity beyond their years. In order to bring their story to life credibly, much would rest on the child actors cast to play them – and the director who would guide them.
“Actually, I didn’t start this project, it wasn’t my idea,” Mr Pontecorvo tells me over Zoom. “They [producer Rose Ganzuga] suggested that I read this script, because they liked the work I had done before, especially the first movie with the kids. Then I became also a producer and writer and everything. But in the beginning, when they were looking for a director, they gave me this script and they said, what do you think, do you want to do it, because they liked what I’ve done.
Initially, he was sceptical: “It was too dogmatic for me,” he says of the first script that was drafted. “It was not really realistic, because it referenced Marxists and there were no Marxists in Portugal in that period.”
But Mr Pontecorvo recognised the power of the story and its dramatic potential, particularly the relationships between the Virgin Mary, Lúcia and her mother: “They are two figures of motherhood on the two sides of Lucia. This film was really engaging, the fact that this little girl fought so much and managed to put together all this crowd praying for peace. I thought it was a subject that can talk to everyone, not only to Catholics. It has a meaning, a very powerful meaning, for everyone, not only for believers.”
The script went through a number of drafts, including one by Mr Pontecorvo himself, before he was happy with it. He conducted a great deal of research into the apparitions, because for him it was important that the film be realistic, and not a fantasy.
“First of all, I didn’t change any word of the Virgin Mary coming from the memories of Lúcia,” Mr Pontecorvo explains. “She was the only one that was talking. I read her book and I cut a few things because it probably was too heavy. But I didn’t change anything within the story. The only thing that is invented, let’s say, is Manuel the brother. The brother was not at war, it was the cousin. So we just slightly changed that because it was much more powerful if the one at war was in the same family [as Lúcia].
“The rest we pretty much tried just to respect the story, reading a lot about it. I read a lot of the memories of Sr Lucia, I read a big book like that of memories that was given to me in Fatima, the shrine of Fatima. First of all I did a lot of meeting with historians on the historical side of Fatima and was also given books and materials. So I tried to organise the material and dramatise inside of something that was real, as I told you, apart from Manuel.”
The faithfulness of Mr Pontecorvo’s rendition of the story is readily apparent, as he includes even the more challenging elements, such as the children’s visit to Hell and a dramatisation of the third secret. According to Mr Pontecorvo, the representation of Hell – quite vivid and, though brief, startling – draws on iconography that the children were likely to have had of it.
“I did Hell like that because it’s the Hell tied to the iconography that a little girl can have and so can imagine and also interpret as well,” he explains. “Because, as Sonya Braga [who plays Sr Lúcia as an adult] says, it’s God that manifests himself in ways that we can understand. She says this in the long dialogue about iconography, why we only see visions similar to the iconography we know. And so, the vision of Hell was coming from there.”
Mr Pontecorvo draws attention to another scene in the Church when Lúcia witnesses the Devil in the form of a snake as an example of how the children see evil through the eyes of the Church’s iconography. The second and trickier element to adapt was the third secret, one that has vexed many people in the variety of its possible meanings. Mr Pontecorvo chose to bring it to life through a mixture of impressionistic editing and camerawork, and the mashing of time periods so that St Sebastian , a third century saint, appears among the ruins of a post-apocalyptic landscape.
“The other one I tried to interpret is the third secret and I think it’s something like a warning for all of us when we go out on one path and we don’t choose the right path of staying together and love and trying to be patient with each other,” Mr Pontecorvo says. “Instead, we choose pain, that is the end of the civilisation – that’s what it says, I believe, in this secret. And that’s what I tried to represent.
“That is why there is St Sebastian at the centre, there is a man shooting with a gun and there is an arrow arriving in the chest of someone. I think it crosses all historical periods – that’s why I put St Sebastian during a first or second world war, or even a third one coming in the future. But this is what we have, if we forget our cautions, our morality, for love and respect of each other – it is closer to a Catholic viewing of this stuff.”
Our Lady of Fatima
Mr Pontecorvo’s commitment to realism is recognisable in another aspect – the depiction of the Virgin Mary. Rather than treating her as a gauzy, ephemeral vision, she is concrete, flesh and blood. Her relationship with Lúcia is both supernatural and natural, tricky to convey but rewarding material for a story if handled well.
“I wanted to make a realistic movie and not to make a fantasy or something like that,” Mr Pontecorvo says. “I like to think about the Virgin Mary, as someone that is a mother, a real woman, who appears barefoot, with her face visible – not with a veil, but really present.
“I thought that was important to make it realistic, in a way, even if there is something that is unrealistic inside for sure, because it is the vision. The way I conveyed that is, if you watch it, there is the kid’s world with the Virgin Mary and there is the world outside. And the two worlds do not touch each other until the end. There is only one take where you have the Virgin Mary, the people and the mother and the girl.
“Otherwise, if you pay attention, when there are the kids and the crowd, there is no Virgin. And when there is the Virgin and the kids, there is no crowd. Never, it’s like two separate worlds. And so I try to have a special eye on the Virgin because it is the point of view of the three kids on her. And it was quite difficult to reach that, I have to say. But I think I managed.”
Aside from the dramatic power of the material, Mr Pontecorvo believes that the messages that came from Our Lady of Fatima are still significant today.
“That was my idea because this story is very important anyway for everybody,” Mr Pontecorvo says. “And that’s why I want to focus on the human side and not only the supernatural. Because it was against the war, the first message the Virgin Mary came to say is, let’s stop this madness, it’s enough. You already offended God too much and if you continue like that, another war will come and it’s the second World War.
“I think this is very important. What the little girl with the faith did is very important. A few things like that, human sign, finding something that is spiritual and transcendent, what is our relationship between the spiritual and transcendent, was something I thought very interesting to investigate and that’s what I did.”
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t touch on miraculous or Divine elements in the story. As already shown, Mr Pontecorvo doesn’t shy away from the apparitions, including the vision of Hell, or the secrets. But he leaves room for interpretation, saying that it is not important to say whether it was real or unreal: “she [Lúcia] was in touch with something”.
“I try to give two possibilities, for an audience that doesn’t believe. So there’s always a possibility, as you see when there is the lightning, Lúcia sees it and the other two no. So is Lúcia inventing or not, we never we know. It’s always up to you to decide. But because I don’t think it is so important to say it is real or unreal, that she was in touch with something. She’s in touch also, for example, with the nature, which for me is one the protagonists of the story. The nature is like an expression of God, of beauty, of light, and everything, in that sense.”
In order to open up the film for a potentially sceptical audience, Mr Pontecorvo includes “flash-forward” sequences, where we see Sr Lucia being interviewed by a sceptical American academic. These meetings contextualise, to a degree, the happenings in 1917.
“The idea was that one story was helping the other one,” Mr Pontecorvo explains. “But it’s not only in one direction. You understand better the 1980s story when at the same time you understand better what is happening in the past. The two work together to go deeper in the story and in the characters… one shining on the other one, and so illuminating the other one with value and sense that you can understand better.
“That was the purpose and for sure to have also the point of view of a professor, played by Harvey Keitel, that would be the point of view of the sceptic or non-believer and was very important for me – to embrace and respect all the points of view on the story. I also have in 1917 the mayor, the mayor is a sceptic. It is a double. I have one sceptic there in 1917 and one sceptic with the Lúcia’s older sister.
“But also Lucia has a different consciousness because she has grown up, she talks, she has the possibility of explaining herself. The other storyline was more instinctive. She was inside of the story, the other one is looking back to the past. So it was important to look back to something that happened so much before.”
The importance of faith is the driving force of the film, Mr Pontecorvo says. Lúcia managed to move something “with faith and move all these people in a period when there were no telephones, no internet, nothing”, he says. “And she managed to move all that. And there is another moment in between the wife of the mayor and the mayor, where they say, ok lets say the Virgin Mary doesn’t exist. But it’s because of the faith that this little boy [who was paralysed], in this moment, with these kids, he managed to have the strength to move his legs a little bit. The importance of faith, for me, it’s very important in life.”
Given the importance Mr Pontecorvo attributes to faith, it is unsurprising that he is planning another film which will tackle matters of religion. He is in the process of making a mini-series on the life of St Óscar Romero of El Salvador, the famous martyr who was shot while celebrating Mass, partly based on a script by his father. Given his sound handling of the apparitions in Fatima, we can have high hopes for Mr Pontecorvo’s project.
Fatima will be released in cinemas and online June 25. It is rated 12A, for more information visit https://www.fatimathemovie.com/.