The strangest things happen to shepherds.
Moses was tending some sheep when he ran across a burning bush. David was taking some time away from his father’s sheep when he fought Goliath. We won’t even bother to remind you about those shepherds near Bethlehem and what they saw: a bevy of Christmas carols will do that for us.
And then we come to the pint-size shepherds of Fatima, Portugal, on May 13, 1917.
Ten-year-old Lúcia dos Santos and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, weren’t looking for divine revelation. They were surprised as anyone when that beautiful woman appeared out of nowhere as they were herding their parents’ sheep.
“I came from heaven,” the strange woman tells them (though Francisco can’t hear her). She asks them to pray the Rosary every day and instructs them to come back to come back to that very spot on the 13th of every month for the next six months. “The world needs peace,” the woman tells them.
The globe had been engulfed by war for three years by then—a war unlike any ever seen before. Men were being mangled by the millions. And even in countries such as Portugal—technically far away from the fighting—the misery is staggering. More than 12,000 Portuguese citizens die fighting for the Allies during World War I. About 82,000 civilians die from foot shortages.
The mysterious woman never asked for a wider audience. But telling 7-year-old Jacinta to keep a secret is like telling the tide to stay in. Word quickly hits the Santos family. That evening, Lúcia’s pious mother, Maria, confronts Lúcia and her crazy story. “Why would the mother of God choose you, of all people?” she demands.
Maria’s hardly alone in her skepticism. Marto, Fatima’s mayor, is determined to stamp out “religious superstition” wherever he finds it, even if it shows up in three little kids. The town’s priest, Father Ferreira, suspects that someone was playing a trick on Lúcia and her friends—or, more darkly, that the devil paid her a visit to mislead. Many townspeople, grieving over their own war dead and seeing precious little evidence of a loving God, think the kids are conniving brats making up tales.
But Lúcia and her cousins stick to their story. And, as the number of pilgrims traveling to Fatima grows, it’s clear that plenty of other people want to believe, too.
Fatima is based on what its believers would call honest-to-goodness miraculous happenings. Though adherents from some Christian traditions might ask questions about this decidedly Catholic miracle, it’s clear that faith becomes the catalyst for some strong character shaping in this story.
Lúcia stands at the center, and she’s understandably bothered when this beautiful vision of the Mother Mary spawns some not-so-beautiful aftershocks. She and her family are belittled by those who don’t believe in the visions. Pilgrims trample the family’s crops, forcing Lúcia’s father to ship their oldest daughter off as a maid and even sell the family’s sheep. The controversy surrounding the children’s visions worry the local government so much that the Mayor shutters the town’s church. Maria even worries that Lúcia’s visions are putting her soldier son at risk. And Lúcia herself wonders why the woman—whom she believes to be the Virgin Mary—refuses to alleviate the suffering she sees.
“I beg you!” she says, half praying, half shouting. “I don’t want other people suffering!” And in an effort to bring about healing for others, she tries to increase her own suffering instead.
But Lúcia never recants. She knows what she saw. She knows what she’s being asked to do. And she’s determined to see the thing through, showing courage and fortitude as she does so.
Lúcia’s father, Antonio, is a tolerant, kind-hearted man. When Lúcia asks him whether he believes her, Antonio truthfully says, “I don’t know.” But he adds, “I know I’ll never leave you.”
And while Maria, Lúcia’s mother, says some pretty hurtful things in the movie (and some suggest that Lúcia’s visions were an effort to earn her distracted mother’s attention), we’re also witness to her kind heart. She’s well known, we’re told, for helping the sick and poor. And she does love all of her children—even when she’s frustrated and believes that one of them is lying to her.
It’s hard to think of an element of this film that isn’t spiritual, to be honest. Faith is woven into every scene and every bit of dialogue. As noted above, this is a very Catholic story, too, so elements won’t necessarily translate with some Christian viewers from different spiritual traditions.
Mary is quite insistent that her young seers follow Catholic rituals in order to curb God’s wrath and perhaps to bring peace to the world. She insists (as mentioned) that the children pray with their Rosaries, and we hear several recitations of the Catholic “Hail Mary” prayer.
Mary says she’s offering these visions for “the conversion of sinners and to amend the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.” (That phrase, Immaculate Heart of Mary, comes up often, both in the movie and in the real history of Fatima.) She calls herself the “Lady of the Rosary” at one point, and she says that she is “going to lead them to my Son through peace and love.” (Perhaps, given the emphasis on Rosaries, we should not be surprised to find enterprising capitalists selling Rosaries to the pilgrims who gather, like baseball vendors selling hot dogs.)
The core story is told in flashback, as a secular professor and author interviews Lúcia (who’s since become a nun) in 1989. He asks her about the Catholic and cultural specificity of her childhood visions. Why do religious visions (he asks) always seem to conform to a given culture’s pop iconography and traditions? Could it be that the seers simply translate religious zeal into visions they’re most familiar with?
“You call it the unconscious,” the nun Lúcia says. “I call it God who, in his infinite wisdom, manifests Himself in a form that we expect, in order to help us understand better.”
The professor (who has written that “all seers are de facto unstable”) isn’t the only skeptic. Plenty of people here probe the mysteries and apparent inconsistencies of faith. The Mayor (a stand-in for Portugal’s relatively new anti-clerical government) belittles religion and trumpets the sacrifices of Portugal’s soldiers on strictly secular terms. “They defend our progressive ideas that will free our country from a feudal past created by ignorance and religious superstitions!” he says. (His wife, on the other hand, is deeply religious, and she’s not afraid to tell her husband so.)
As mentioned, Father Ferreira cautions that the children’s visions could stem from a more infernal source. People debate over stigmata and puzzle over the role of suffering in God’s handiwork. And some are too grief-stricken to believe at all anymore.
“I lost my son, and the Holy Mother did nothing,” one woman scolds Lúcia. “She let him die like a dog, far from home. I don’t believe anymore. I don’t believe anything.”
We see visions and miracles, too—but even miracles are questioned. When a boy who had been paralyzed from the waist down takes some weak, supported steps during a monthly gathering around the makeshift shrine, it’s hailed by believers as a miracle. Marto, the mayor, believes he knows differently: He had carried the boy to the hospital when he fell, and he’d heard that the lad might one day walk again if he put all his effort into it. He says it was no act of faith. But his wife disagrees.
“If he found the strength to walk today, out of all days—to walk in that specific place—then it’s all down to his faith,” she says.
Maria is a woman of deep faith, and she constantly prays out deals with God—promising to work “much harder for the Church” if God will protect her son on the front lines. She fosters self-denying devotion in her daughters, too, forbidding Lúcia from dancing and telling her that “a little hunger is good for the soul.”
We see lots of religious iconography, of course, and hear countless prayers. We also see some of the children’s mysterious visions, including one where they visit a very Dante-esque version of hell and see visions from a disturbing future (unless, of course, the world repents of its sins). Before Mary comes to visit the children, Lúcia is apparently visited by the “Angel of Peace,” who plants visions of the war in Lúcia’s brain (including one of her brother getting injured).
Maria and Antonio remove their outer garments before going to bed, and we see Maria in some modest, period-appropriate underwear (including what appears to be a corset).
Some of the children’s visions are very violent. One depicts priests and other believers climbing a hill, but once they reach the summit, they’re bloodily gunned down by soldiers. Visions of war include bloodied, obviously dead and sometimes limbless bodies. War imagery appears—sometimes dreamlike, sometimes all-too-real. The vision of hell, of course, is deeply disturbing, and features someone apparently being roasted on a grill above a roaring cavity of fire.
Mary tells the children that Jacinta and Francisco will be going to heaven “very soon,” and Lúcia has a vision of their joint funeral. (The two cousins died about a year after the events of the movie—victims of the flu pandemic that followed swiftly on the heels of World War I.) Lúcia worries over her mother’s cough; at one point the woman seems seriously ill and on the verge of death. Some war veterans come home with bandages on their head or arms. Francisco, we learned, threw rocks at some other boys (for which the Virgin Mary is a bit displeased), but he insists the boys had beat him up first. Mary bleeds from what appear to be thorns in her chest. An apparent miracle takes a terrifying turn.
Mayor Marto, after joking with some townsfolk and making sure that their Lenten fasting is done, calls for “a round of drinks for everyone.” We see some wine being served with dinner.
Lúcia disobeys her mother and other authority figures, albeit in order to follow the instructions of the Virgin Mary. The mayor tries to figure out a way to have the children’s visions discredited and, ideally, to have the children themselves committed to an insane asylum.
Fatima, the movie, takes its miracles seriously. It’s based on happenings that took place near this Portuguese city in 1917 which culminate with “The Miracle of the Sun.” (I won’t spoil the actual miracle, but there’s plenty of information online if you want to spoil it for yourself.) Though it stars some familiar actors and is distributed by a secular movie studio, this is as sincere a spiritual exercise as you’re likely to find in theaters today.
But we can’t stop there: Because of its overt religiosity, Fatima is, paradoxically, a challenging and, for some, even troubling piece of cinema.
Superficially, you can credit some of that to the movie’s overt depiction of Catholic doctrine. For devout Catholics, little of what’s shown here will feel out of place. But for Christians from other traditions, the idea of the Virgin Mary literally bleeding from the heart and telling believers that they need to pray the Rosary in order to curb God’s wrath—even though it’s all consistent with the real Lúcia’s own accounts—can feel a little jarring and perhaps antithetical to their own understanding of faith.
The movie tackles that friction, and I talk about it a bit in the Spiritual Content section. But the fact that Fatima takes on this question so boldly takes us to the film’s next challenge—and I think it’s a good, healthy challenge.
Yes, Fatima takes its faith seriously. The movie insists that the reason for our faith is grounded in truth, and that’s a beautiful thing. But instead of gently sidestepping any skepticism or spiritual questions viewers might have, it gives them a place and voice within the story itself.
At its center is one of Christianity’s most vexing questions: If God is so great and so loving, why do people suffer? Does God ask us to suffer? It’s a great question, and one that most every believer must struggle with sooner or later. The film suggests that some suffering is caused by our own sin and disregard for God. But it also acknowledges that much of our suffering is a mystery. It offers no pat answers, no “five steps to a happier you” solutions.
For some believers, this may feel unsatisfying. But for others—and I’d count myself among this group—just the acknowledgment of that mystery, that friction, is gratifying. And, of course, just raising the subject can raise plenty of conversations with fellow moviegoers, too.
Fatima is a well-crafted, very Catholic and (in its own reverent way) quite provocative piece of filmmaking. It reminds us that miracles are real and that, yes, suffering is, too. The film might not resonate with everyone. But for those who can navigate it, it just might lead some to a deeper spiritual encounter of their own.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.