On May 13, 1917, times were of turmoil in Portugal. Barely recovered from the bloody republican revolution of 1910, the country had just entered the First World War with the intention of increasing its political participation in Europe, and would leave the conflict in debt, with extremely high inflation and more than ten thousand lives lost. The Catholic Church, which defended the return of Portuguese troops, had been silenced by the revolutionaries: in the first month, the new government expelled religious orders, closed convents and confiscated property, in addition to prohibiting priests from teaching and wearing ecclesiastical attire in public.
It was on this day that brothers Francisco and Jacinta Marto, aged 7 and 9, and their cousin Lúcia, aged 10, returned home claiming to have seen “a lady all dressed in white, brighter than the sun”, who had asked them to to return to the site on the same day, at the same time, for the next five months. There, on a bush just over a meter tall, the lady – without revealing her identity – asked the children to pray the rosary every day so that, according to the description made years later by Lúcia herself, “they could reach peace for the world and the end of the war”. The unusual meeting took place in Cova da Iria, an uninhabited forest in the parish of Fátima, where the three children used to take care of the flock of sheep. Thus began what the Catholic Church understands today as the greatest and most important Marian apparition of modern times: the story of Our Lady of Fatima.
Part of this controversial and impressive case, which walks within the limits of faith and human action, has just landed in Brazilian cinemas, under the title “Fátima – A História de Um Milagre”. Directed by the Italian Marco Pontecorvo and with the performance of Sônia Braga (“Bacurau”, “Aquarius”) in the role of sister Lúcia, whose memoirs served as the basis for the narrative, the work focuses precisely on the events of that May 13th, until the the saint’s last supposed apparition, on October 13, 1917, an occasion that would have been marked by a miracle in the eyes of thousands of faithful. The American Harvey Keitel (“Dogs for Rent”) plays the role of the skeptical teacher who, when interviewing the nun, leads her to recall her childhood experiences. With good photography and moving interpretations – with emphasis on the three pastors and the Portuguese actress Joana Ribeiro as Our Lady – the film is able to please Catholics and nonbelievers, especially for its quality that distances it from most confessional productions known in Brazil.
In an interview with People’s Gazette, Pontecorvo confirmed its intention to conquer the secular public. “The message of Fatima is a message of peace. Furthermore, I believe in the power of faith, in the sense that these three little children were willing to fight with everyone and lose everything – their family, their community – to defend what they had I think this is important, even for unbelievers, because being human has a deep and essential relationship with the transcendent,” said the director, who reinforces the skeptical character of the work, marked both by Keitel’s character and by subtleties that allow for the viewer to speculate about what actually happened.
An example is the famous vision of hell, related by Sister Lúcia in her memoirs: in the film, the images seen by the shepherdess look a lot like the diabolical representations on the walls of the parish where her family attended. “Doubt within history is important. It is the dialectical instrument through which we decide what we really believe. That’s why I didn’t mean ‘this is the truth’: it’s up to you. I’m telling a story that is important to all of us, regardless of whether you believe the children were visited by the Virgin or that Lucia had a great imagination,” says Pontecorvo. In this sense, they also corroborate the insinuations of the republican administrator of Vila de Ourém, who was determined to stifle the “popular belief” that took over the village of Fátima in times when any discourse of hope would find fertile ground.
The Virgin of the Estado Novo against Communism
Pontecorvo’s film is even quite faithful in portraying the anticlericalism of the Portuguese republican movement. The fact that the alleged apparitions took place in this period served, on the one hand, for the devotion to spread throughout the country in a short time, in the absence of the politicians, and, on the other hand, for the suspicion, from the beginning, of the ” convenience” of a visit by the mother of Christ to three illiterate children. Two of them, Jacinta and Francisco, would die victims of the Spanish Flu two years after the occurrence, while Lúcia would enter the Carmel of Coimbra, where she died in 2004, at 97 years of age.
It so happens that the biggest controversies involving the events shown in “Fátima” began decades after the phenomena portrayed by the film – a period that the director purposely left out. As if to spice up the debate about the political and religious interests involved in the apparitions of Fatima, the messages supposedly received by the pastors extrapolated the Portuguese borders and decisively influenced conflicts of international magnitude.
Within Portugal, for example, the story of Fatima would be unconditionally embraced by the Estado Novo de Oliveira Salazar, which would implement a regime similar to that installed by Getúlio Vargas in Brazil in 1934 in the country. However, unlike here, where the agnostic dictator, the same At the time, he pretended to believe in Nossa Senhora Aparecida only to strengthen his projection among the Brazilian population, Salazar was a deeply religious man and believed that the power of the State should be guided by Catholic morality. And, to remain in power, he had the support of the Portuguese bishopric.
On the eve of the first election of deputies to the National Assembly, Bishop Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira, Salazar’s right-hand man, sent him a letter with a message from Sister Lúcia attached. “It is necessary to make the people understand that the privations and sufferings of recent years were not the result of any lack of Salazar, but proof that God sent us for our sins”, wrote the nun. But it was the bishop who insisted that “Salazar is the person He (God) has chosen to continue to rule our country.” During this period, the cult of Our Lady and the apparitions of Fatima began to be taught as an essential part of the history of Portugal.
The biggest of the controversies led by the saint, however, began in 1941, with the publication of the Memoirs of Sister Lucia by the nun, who was then 34 years old. It was in a document sent to the bishop of Leiria that the “seer” spoke for the first time of the famous “secrets of Fatima”: one being the vision of hell shown by the film and the other, the prophecy of a new war, as well as of a cycle of horrors caused by the country that, precisely in the year of the “apparitions”, experienced a communist revolution.
“If my requests are granted, Russia will be converted and they will have peace; if not, it will spread its errors throughout the world, promoting wars and persecutions of the Church; the good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, various nations will be annihilated, in the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph”, the Virgin would have said, as reported by Lucia. Forty more years later, this message would lead a devotee of Our Lady from a nation crushed by both Nazism and Stalinism to launch a political-religious crusade against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). As early as the 1980s, Pope John Paul II would make the consecration of Russia supposedly requested by Our Lady. At the same time, he officially rejected Liberation Theology – the Marxist interpretation of the Gospel. Not by chance, the headline in Jornal do Brasil on April 3, 2005 read: “Die John Paul II, the geopolitical pontiff who defeated communism and restructured the Church”.
Pontecorvo’s work doesn’t even run into these conflicts. “I wanted to stay out of these questions completely. Sister Lucia began writing her memoirs about thirty years after these events. The world was different. If you ask me today to write about something I experienced when I was ten years old, it will certainly pass through the filter of what I have already experienced. So, I felt it was a more critical point”, justified the director.
It should be noted that even the top of the Catholic Church is not unanimous as to the veracity of the events in Fatima, much less as to their interpretation: the Catechism does not determine that the faithful must believe in the apparitions, the recognition of the Vatican being the mere permission for the construction of temples and propagation of the cult. Whether or not one believes in the existence, the apparition or even the interpretations of the messages attributed to Our Lady, “Fatima” is a respectful and delicate portrait of the irreplaceable strength of a living and community faith, the test of time and material gods.