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Fatima is in cinemas from 25 June.

Marco Pontecorvo’s ‘faith-based’ account of the Marian apparitions at Fátima, Portugal, in 1917 arrives almost simultaneously with Evan Spiliotopoulos’s horror film The Unholy, based on James Herbert’s 1983 novel Shrine – which takes a diametrically opposed view but is similarly committed to the miraculous.

Previous films on Fátima (John Brahm’s The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, 1952) and the similar story of Lourdes (Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette, 1943) have taken a similar approach – not quite saying categorically that the ‘seers’ were divinely visited, but espousing their viewpoint. This requires a human actress (an uncredited Linda Darnell in 1943, a similarly glamorous Joana Ribeiro here) to play the impossible role of the apparition of the Virgin, or perhaps a child’s idea of an apparition.

It’s easier for The Unholy to sell its wicked witch posing as Mary than it is to make the Lady that the child Lucia sees to pass muster with sceptics – especially since her message for the world is so vague and the miracle she delivers amounts to little more than post-rainfall sunshine.

Harvey Keitel as in Professor Nichols in Fatima (2020)

Like Xavier Giannoli’s tougher, fictional L’Apparition (2018), the film feels obliged to raise a few objections. Harvey Keitel interrogates the aged Lucia (Sónia Braga), playing gentle sceptic in a role that parallels his appearance as Houdini in Charles Sturridge’s FairyTale: A True Story (1997), about a similar (if non-Christian) instance of children testifying to a miracle. Keitel’s professor points out that the Lady seemed to promise that World War I would end with the miracle (it went on for over a year afterwards) and Sister Lucia wryly notes that the world doesn’t seem to have taken the message of peace on board.

More damaging, perhaps, is that the apparition brings fairly catastrophic bad luck to Lucia’s family – a crop is trampled by pilgrims, an older daughter has to go into service, a brother goes missing in action, and a vision of a double funeral presages the deaths of the cousins who share in the visions (or, in another reading, go along with the hoax).

Still, the young Lucia – played with big-eyed conviction by Stephanie Gil – is beatific and stubborn, and this isn’t a film that troubles to explain that the anticlerical (ie, anti-Marian) government represented by a scowling mayor (Goran Visnjic) was replaced by a fascist dictatorship and that in later life Lucia insisted the Virgin’s message of peace was actually a cry to resist communism.

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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