Director of Fatima film: “I think we achieved something believable.”

An interview with filmmaker Marco Pontecorvo, who directed the first major screen adaptation of the story of the Fátima apparitions and the Miracle of the Sun in 68 years, since the 1952 film The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima.

Alejandra Howard, Stephanie Gil, Jorge Lamelas, Elmano Sancho, Lucia Moniz, and Marco D'Almeida Sierra star in a scene from the movie "Fatima." (CNS photo/Claudio Iannone, courtesy PICTUREHOUSE)

The new film Fátima (in theaters and on demand August 28), from filmmaker Marco Pontecorvo, is the first major screen adaptation of the story of the Fátima apparitions and the Miracle of the Sun in 68 years, since the 1952 film The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima.

There have been others. The 1991 Portuguese film Aparição, known in English as Apparitions at Fatima, is the most historically authentic, and is screened regularly at the Shrine of Fátima. The 2009 art-house indie The 13th Day recounted the story in the form of dramatizations of Sister Lúcia’s recollections as she writes her memoir.

But the 1952 production is the familiar favorite for most Catholic viewers—though this new film could well change that.

The son of Gillo Pontecorvo, who directed the 1966 classic The Battle of Algiers, Marco Pontecorvo is best known as a cinematographer and director of photography (his credits include Game of Thrones and the HBO miniseries Rome). In his acclaimed 2008 directorial debut Pa-Ra-Da, he showed sensitivity for directing children.

I spoke with Pontecorvo from Italy via phone. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CWR: I’m curious about the research that you did on the Fátima story in preparation for making this film, and what you may have learned about the story that you didn’t know before.

Marco Pontecorvo: A lot! As an Italian, living in a Catholic country, I certainly knew the story. But then I undertook a lot of things: reading the memoirs of Sister Lúcia; reading a huge book about people that witnessed all the events, the Miracle of the Sun, and the days and the years after the Miracle of the Sun. That’s not in the movie, but I was curious. The Shrine of Fátima gave me that book.

I discovered a lot about the people at that time. I discovered how much religion was part of their life. Most people were poor and didn’t know how to read or write—apart from the mother of Lúcia. She had an education, for sure better than the rest of the family, and also better than some in their village.

It was interesting to enter in their life, how they spent their days, how the kids played. For example, it is true in the film that the kids were using echoes to say fewer Ave Marias during the rosary. Because, you know, you have to say a certain number of prayers during the rosary, and because the sound was bouncing you can hear like each one like three or four times!

CWR: Were you particularly moved by anything that you learned? Or has any part of the story really stuck with you?

Marco Pontecorvo: Absolutely. The most important is the relationship between the mother, Maria, and the daughter, Lúcia.

They were poor, but not that poor—better off than other families. During that period after the apparition, though, everything went bad in their life. The crowds ruined the field, the Cova da Iria, where they were cultivating the things they ate, because the apparition had been in this field. So they were struggling with death.

Some of their neighbors thought Lúcia was mad or lying. Within the family the harmony was destroyed by the apparition; Lúcia and the mother started fighting about them. So something that could be read as a positive thing actually threatened to destroy the dynamics of the family and the village.

CWR: The relationship between Lúcia and her mother is an important part of her story. Can you talk about how your portrayal of this relationship is different from past tellings of this story?

Marco Pontecorvo: I watched one or two other movies. One was the 1952 film, The Miracle of Our Lady of the Sun. It was a more like a fairy tale. In the other one, The 13th Day, the characters were really painted heavy: the bad guys, the good guys. It was too much literal following the story without trying to offer an interpretation of the story and try to go deeper into the characters.

What I tried to do is understand is why. Who was Lúcia? How can she face all this conflict and continue to affirm what she saw? She was struggling because she almost lost her family; even her father, who supported her, at one point was struggling with the fact that they were losing everything.

But she continued and pursued what she believed was something she had to follow. And in the end she managed to bring together all these people, and her mother started to trust her as well as her father.

She can be a very strange girl. She seems to see more. For someone who doesn’t believe in God or the possibility of a miracle, if you see everything as connected to her imagination, why was she imagining all this? The mayor says it’s because she needs the love of the mother, and so she created another mother. That’s another theme in the story: the two mothers.

CWR: When it comes to portraying that other Mother, and also the Miracle of the Sun, how to depict the miraculous is a challenge that any filmmaker telling a story like this has to grapple with. Can you talk about how you approached putting the miraculous on screen?

Marco Pontecorvo: The Miracle of the Sun was seen by people who were completely anticlerical unbelievers, newspaper editors, physicists—there were a lot of testimony saying “Even if I don’t believe, this is what I saw.”

So I started from there. Something definitely happened. I don’t know how to explain that; I’m not a physicist. I don’t know if there’s some kind of phenomenon in the air that can show you the sun in a different way, circling and changing colors and so forth. But that day was the 13th, the day the miracle was supposed to happen. So if you’re not a believer, there are so many coincidences!

I tried to find something in nature. We studied all the possible things with the sun that scientists have photographed or described. From there, with visual effects, we tried to make something connected to the testimony, similar to things that had been photographed. Similar; it doesn’t have to be exactly the same. Also, you have to explain to the visual effects people what you want, and it’s difficult to express if you don’t have a reference in nature. They don’t know where to go.

I think we achieved something believable. If you are not a believer, you can point to atmospheric phenomena that can move the sun and make circles and all that stuff. But then I can say there are too many coincidences, so I start to believe. Why that day would there be something in front of the sun? Why would the rain finish at that moment? And everything dried very quickly—hair and clothing. So I believe that a miracle happened.

CWR: The Virgin Mary has been shown in visions and apparitions in many different ways. Can you talk about your approach to filming Mary and the children’s experience of her, and how it maybe differs from some other portrayals of Mary in visions in other movies?

Marco Pontecorvo: I wanted the Virgin Mary as a real woman, a mother. That’s how I expect her, and that’s how I think Lúcia wants her. She has to be someone who they can love and not fear. She is barefoot, simple, very motherly, gentle.

We worked a lot on the tone of the voice, and how she talked to them slowly—it’s like an embrace. We worked with [actress] Joana Ribiero on that, and also with costume designer Daniela Ciancio. I was thinking that she has a head covering, not exactly like in a painting, but more like the real Virgin Mary in Palestine: not straight on the two sides of the shoulders, but going in front from one side over the other shoulder.

CWR: You also picture her naturalistically—not in a halo or nimbus, not transparent or anything like that.

Marco Pontecorvo: No, I did not want that. She was a real woman. I want to imagine her like that, I think it is better for us, and for the kids as well. She doesn’t have to be floating or something like that to be regal or spiritual. You can be spiritual and regal even if you are barefoot.

I think that also nature has a huge importance in the movie. It’s another protagonist. Lúcia finds God in the beauty of nature, as she finds the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary is part of nature in a way, because she has the same kind of simple nature, simple beauty.

She is able, this little girl, to enjoy that. I think it is very important, especially in this period, to enjoy the little things God gives us through nature. She looks beyond; she can go to another level that not all of us can, but it would be important for all of us to make this step.

CWR: Your father wrote a screenplay about Jesus that was never filmed, in part because he didn’t want to cast a star. Is a Jesus film like that a project you might like to work on?

Marco Pontecorvo: Absolutely. I would love to. It is a beautiful script, a beautiful point of view on Jesus—even if my father was not a believer, and I believe in a different way.

I don’t really follow a precise religion, even if I am baptized. My father was from a Jewish family, but he was agnostic. My mother and her family are Catholic and really believers. So I come from these two experiences.

I think my father was completely right not to compromise. You could always try to work on an actor and transform his look and everything, so it doesn’t look like Paul Newman or Marlon Brando playing Jesus, or whoever, and try to forget the normal image of the actor.

I believe my father was really respectful of the story of Jesus, and how his story changed history. So I would like to do it, I hope.


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About Steven D. Greydanus 15 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is the film critic for the National Catholic Register and the creator of DecentFilms.com. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle Society and a permanent diaconate in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.

20 Comments

  1. Greydanus comments: “You also picture her [Mary] naturalistically—not in a halo or nimbus, not transparent or anything like that.”

    The son of a Belgian minister, the realistic/expressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh wrote somewhere in the letters to his brother Theo, that he (also) wanted to portray some of his very ordinary subjects—-miners, peasants, weavers, potato-eaters—-with the inner quality of halos, but without the superimposed/ stylistic symbolism.

  2. Sister Lucia was quite emphatic regarding the appearance and comportment of the Blessed Virgin. Her description provided frequently and without contradiction is easily researched in her memoirs, the better historical recountings as well as starring right at you over the main door of the original basilica at Fatima. The sculptor of that work, Thomas McGlynn OP, left an informative account [“Vision of Fatima”] of Sister Lucia’s cooperation with him in the late forties before her entrance to Carmel. The Blessed Virgin’s visual appearance was a message in itself. If Divine Reason could be improved upon I’m sure the good God would have seen to it. Authentic “icons” are written in a language with its own logic. Binge sentimentalism [here it could be termed “mommyism”] and the recent addiction to a fraudulent empathy in contemporary political culture as well as the shifty mercy, mercy mercy of Bergoglianim are no substitute for depth Christian engagement with reality — both the temporal and the transcendent.
    Pontecorvo’s unwillingness to stick with Sister Lucia’s simple, clear and unwavering testimony on the visual appearance of the Blessed Virgin makes me quite skeptical of the rest of his production. But we will see — I am certainly not hopeful.

    • Fully agreed. But, as for only the “nimbus” or halo in religious art–this is an early stylistic and inadequate convention. We can notice that in Da Vinci’s Renaissance-period “Last Supper,” Christ is no longer outfitted with a halo; this accent is only visually suggested by the lighted window centered behind His head.

      But, as you very correctly affirm regarding “transparency” (Greydanus), this description from Sister Lucia:

      “It was a Lady dressed all in white, more brilliant than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal glass filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun.”

      • It also seems that the halos were an important early hallmark of Christian art. I saw an image recently which depicted several apostles with the halo but St. John the Apostle without a golden halo but rather a grayish one, indicative that he was still alive at the time of the painting. I also have a prayer card for blessing of meals (before and after) from Pray Latin which depicts the eleven apostles with the golden halo but Judas without any halo–surely symbolic of the reality that he’s not sharing–at that anybody can imagine–in the beatific vision.

        As the centuries have passed the halo depiction is less meaningful because we know whose alive. Pictures aren’t stories the way they used to be. Alas.

  3. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.

    2 Corinthians 11:14,15

    • My antenna was only raised a few times. Notably when they ask the Blessed Virgin about one of their friends and she replies that she’s in Heaven. I have only ever read and heard that the BVM told the children that their friend–aged eight years-old at death–was in purgatory and would be until the end of days. Coupled with the vision of hell it’s a very pointed message to us all to stay in a state of grace and pray for a happy death and extreme unction (denied to so many in these strange days).

  4. well realistically, can we ever portray the beauty and holiness of Our Blessed Mother. Not really. It sounds like the film attempts to portray the humanity of the three seers in the context of these remarkable events, visions and miracles. I hope it is a good movie.

  5. In another article about this film it is said in this film that the Angel of Portugal only appears to Lucia instead of all three of the children as Lucia told in her memoirs. Why this change? Why is it so difficult to tell the story of Fatima in both an accurate and compelling manner on film? I was already annoyed by the change of Sr. Lucia’s brother being in WWI when he wasn’t, and by Our Lady walking on the muddy earth when she didn’t, and now this major change?

    I honestly think this film is being made with the purpose of trying to appease non-Catholics, perhaps particularly Protestants. And I’m sorry to say this but Protestants will not see this film! Protestants HATE Our Lady with a passion! So why try and appease them?

    I realize this is not a documentary but I don’t see the need to make such changes to a story that’s already compelling enough. There’s been enough of these inaccurate Catholic films with the ones sold by Ignatius Press on the lives of the Saints (“St. Rita”, “Giuseppe Moscati: Doctor of the Poor”, “Bakhita: From Slave to Saint” and “St. Phillip Neri: I Prefer Heaven” to name a few)

    I also worry this film will downplay the spirituality of Fatima, which speaks of prayer and peace, yes, but also penance and suffering, which is not attractive to most modern Catholics, both modernist and even some orthodox.

    I will watch this film as I trust the original screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi as she knows how to write a strong film! However, I am concerned…

    • “Protestants HATE Our Lady with a passion!”

      Not accurate, or fair. There is a wide range of attitudes towards the Blessed Mother among Protestants (needless to say, what with 30,000+ Protestant denominations), but I’ve never met a Protestant who “hates” her. Perhaps “hates” or dismisses Catholic teaching about Mary, in which case they almost always misunderstand or misrepresent what is being taught–and the negativity is aimed at what is (wrongly) perceived as “idolatry”, etc.

      • I don’t think that some Anglicans think of themselves as Protestants but in any case many Anglican churches in the UK have a Lady Altar with a statue or image of the Blessed Mother. Often votive candles too.
        Ive never met a Protestant who hates Mary. She’s an important figure in the Bible. But I do know folks who hate the (mistaken) idea that Catholics worship Mary in ways due only to God.

      • The Song of Mary
        And Mary said: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. Luke 1:46-47 Sinless people don’t need a Savior. Mary knew she was a sinner and had been looking forward to Jesus. Not hard to understand that.
        Jesus never called her anything but woman…..no special titles from God himself.
        Look how many times in the O.T. that the Israelites neglected God and fell into idolatry…..God punished them each time they worshiped anything but Him.

        For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man–and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Romans 1:20-23

        • A drop of poison poisons the entire pool. From filth comes filth.

          Ambrose of Milan: “Come, then, and search out your sheep, not through your servants or hired men, but do it yourself. Lift me up bodily and in the flesh, which is fallen in Adam. Lift me up not from Sarah but from Mary, a virgin not only undefiled, but a virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin” (Commentary on Psalm 118:22–30 [A.D. 387]).

    • America was a lot more Protestant (and a lot more anti-Catholic) when movies like The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima and The Song of Bernadette made tons of money.

      Nobody involved in this project, so far as I know, has the slightest investment in “appeasing Protestants.”

  6. Carl, maybe my use of the word “hate” is too strong I admit. However, I think the Protestant animosity toward Our Lady will prevent this film from being seen by anyone other than Catholics. As well I have seen at least one video of a Baptist Preacher destroying a statue of what he thought was Our Lady (it was really St. Therese of Lisieux) and mocking our devotion to her!

    I would strongly recommend the 1992 docu-drama “Apparitions at Fatima”, directed by Daniel Costelle which Steven Greydanus referenced in this article as it is the most accurate and authentic-feeling film on the apparitions of Fatima to date. It is available on DVD from EWTN and the World Apostolate of Fatima and was praised by Sr. Lúcia and St. John Paul II!

    It remains to be seen the accuracy of “Fatima” but I have concerns.

  7. Mary? The Church? The Mass? Please bear with me…

    Recent events seem like a NON-REALITY TV show. Some examples: (1) A Baptist preacher destroys a statue of St. Therese because he thinks it depicts Mary; (2) Alexandria Occasional Cortex trashes St. Junipera Serra because she thinks he’s a conquistador; both mimicking the earlier (3) Reign of Terror when the mob-du-jour tossed into the Seine the statues on the facade of Notre Dame, thinking these depicted Christian saints (they were Old Testament figures).

    And now we hear that Protestants will not view a Fatima movie (whatever its strengths and weaknesses) because of their “animosity toward Our Lady”…possibly very true.

    But, the REALITY is that in 1858 the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception also was questioned because it might be “inopportune” for discussions with Protestants. Likewise, the Vatican II included Mary in Lumen Gentium, rather than not. The TRUTH is that without the unconditional “fiat” of Mary as Theotokos, we’re stuck with a dichotomy between the physical and spiritual realms of creation, forgetful of the Christological councils affirming, in the Person of Christ, our human nature gratuitously united with the divine nature.

    We WORSHIP a Trinity, NOT a Quaternary, and therefore we VENERATE—not worship—Mary and her unique role in salvation history.

    Otherwise, having already secularly redefined “marriage” and even binary human sexuality/complementarity, now ecclesiastically we might as well REDEFINE PARISHES—as flat-earth, mixed-bag “congregations” hybridized from the sacramental priesthood (no longer as clear extensions of their bishops—successors of the apostles commissioned by the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity).

    Ratzinger/Benedict contrasts this Lutheran redefinition with the Catholic understanding of the NATURE OF THE CHURCH: “The center of the oldest ecclesiology is the Eucharistic assembly [not congregation] – the Church is COMMUNIO…(OTHERWISE, the priesthood is reduced to that of preaching, a “purely functional [!] interpretation of the office…In consequence, the whole context of COMMUNIO is abolished and only the ‘speakers’ are left” (Principles of Catholic Theology, Ignatius, 1987, pp. 254, 262).

    More than a digression, here a Marian question:

    In pending discussions over the restructuring of parishes (and their very nature?)—especially in Germania, inching its way to the table do we find in praxis a mongrelized notion that the itinerate (?) “parish” priest differs from the laity only in his visiting function, and no longer clearly in terms of the Mass as “communio,” “sacerdotium” and “sacrificium” (Ratzinger/Benedict)? For such parish-defining discussions, does the INITIAL SHAPE OF THE TABLE matter, pre-emptively if it’s a polygon (aha!) including as full participants lay members of Germania’s “synodal path”?

    Viral Germania! What was Mary’s word? And what did the Word say and do?

  8. I really appreciate reading this interview. This is the first time I heard of what the apparitions cost Lucia and her family economically and in their love for each other. As they say, grace is not cheap and does not come cheap. I really want to see this movie.

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