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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