In the powerful and uplifting drama Fátima, based on historical events, a 10-year-old shepherd and her two younger cousins in Fátima, Portugal, report visions of the Virgin Mary, inspiring thousands of believers and angering officials of both the Catholic Church and the secularist government, who try to force them to recant their story.
Throughout the Catholic world, the Portuguese town of Fátima is renowned for the miraculous appearance of the Blessed Virgin to three young shepherds in 1917. A small farming district at the time, it became internationally famous for the prophecies the children claimed to have received, making it a revered religious site visited by some six million pilgrims annually. Now, the power of its legacy has brought together an eclectic international group of cinema artists who believe that Fátima’s miraculous message of faith and peace, which galvanised the world over a century ago, is more important than ever.
Producer James T Volk says he was originally unfamiliar with the story of Lúcia Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto. As he learned more about it, however, he knew he had found a narrative that was perfectly aligned with both his company’s mission and with events unfolding around the world. He and his partner, Dick Lyles, founded Origin Entertainment with the intention of making transformative entertainment that inspires audiences to create a better world.
“When I heard about the events at Fátima, I was blown away,” says Volk. “I thought everyone should know about it. A lot of people who grew up Catholic know this story, but someone like me, who grew up in Evangelical churches, is unlikely to be aware of it. This story can be a universal bridge between people of all faiths. The innocence of these three kids helped spread a message of peace and hope to an entire generation. Perhaps it can do that again today.”
Volk and Lyles optioned the rights to remake the 1952 Warner Bros film The Miracle of Our Lady of Fátima, based on the events of 1917. They approached Rose Ganguzza, who has been shepherding indie films to success for almost 20 years, to help produce the film. “I have been fascinated by the story since I was a child,” Ganguzza says. “At my Catholic school, the nuns would bring out the white sheets and the projectors and show that movie every year. So I agreed to come on but I had very strong ideas about how the script needed to change.”
Ganguzza knew the story needed to be updated for modern audiences and that the film needed to place the events in the context of Western Europe in the early 20th century. “You can’t tell this story in a vacuum,” she says. “What was happening then is critical to understand. There was huge anti-Catholic sentiment across the Iberian Peninsula. Churches were being closed down in Spain and Portugal and they were hanging priests in effigy. They were in the middle of a military conflict unlike any the world had seen before. Droves of young men were being slaughtered daily. To tell this story like it was told in 1952 wouldn’t work today.”
The veteran producer also felt it was essential to focus on the children as harbingers of hope and purity. “These three were giving a message of peace and belief at a time when people were in desperate situations,” Ganguzza explains. “It seemed as if the war was never going to end, that it was going to keep expanding, that they were going to lose more loved ones.”
The Marto siblings were recently canonised by the Catholic Church and Lúcia is on the road to sainthood, but the filmmakers have insisted on portraying them first and foremost as children. “It would have been easy to put these kids up on a pedestal and venerate them as saints,” Ganguzza says. “But we wanted to examine their humanity. Is what they say real and true or is it not? Do we believe the words of the children or do we doubt them as the adults in their lives did? It’s a moving rendition of the beauty of innocence. Their love, their devotion and their faith continue to fascinate people.”
Natasha Howes was added to the team because of her deep knowledge and appreciation for the story of the children of Fátima. In researching the 2009 feature documentary The 13th Day, which she produced, Howes became an expert on the subject of Fátima, she says. “Part of my role on this film was to ensure that we retained the historical authenticity of the story. I have worked closely with the Shrine of Fátima and key organisations dedicated to disseminating the meaning and message of Fátima throughout the world.”
Lyles adds, “We had the pleasure of working with Natasha on a previous Origin project and her keen understanding of the story and deep roots into this community made her an integral member of our team.”
When it came to finding a director for the film, Ganguzza unhesitatingly suggested Marco Pontecorvo based on the success of his first film, Pa-ra-da, and particularly his skilled work with child actors. Pontecorvo has had a long and distinguished career as a cinematographer, serving as director of photographer on projects as diverse as Game Of Thrones and the John Turturro comedy Fading Gigolo. He has also directed several Italian television projects, but Fatima is his first feature in English.
Growing up in Italy, Pontecorvo was familiar with the basic story of Fátima. “It’s very well-known in a lot of Catholic countries,” he explains. “I didn’t know any of the details of Lúcia’s life or about Portugal in that era, so I had to jump into the history. Because it took place at the height of the First World War, the politics were an important element, but I focused primarily on the relationships, particularly between the mother and the daughter, and Lúcia and the Virgin Mary. The triangle is quite interesting.”
In depicting the young shepherds’ visions of Mary, Potencorvo chose to have her appear not as a gauzy apparition, but as a flesh-and-blood woman, played by Portuguese actress Joana Ribeiro. “The children see her in a way they can understand and not be afraid: the figure of a mother,” explains the director.
With the help of Howes’ unique knowledge and expertise, the filmmakers wove some lesser-known details into the narrative and corrected a number of longstanding misapprehensions. For example, Howes points out that Lúcia’s mother and father have been mischaracterized in previous accounts.
“In particular, her mother. She could be quite harsh but she wasn’t a bad woman. According to Lúcia’s memoirs, she was a humble woman devoted to her faith and she just could never believe that her daughter could be so blessed as to experience the Virgin Mary.”
The real Lúcia became a nun and lived in a Carmelite convent in Coimbra, Portugal, from 1948 until she died in 2005 at the age of 97. She left a long legacy for the filmmakers to draw upon, including two volumes of memoirs. “We recognized that there was an incredible story behind this miracle, the story of the children and their experiences of the Virgin Mary, as well as their ultimate persecution within their homes and their local communities, by the government and the Church,” says Howes. “But they all remained true to their mission, even after their abduction by the authorities and interrogation under the threat of death. Whether they truly experienced the apparitions or not, whether the miracle happened or not, we continue to relate to Lúcia and her quest.”