Some Thoughts on the Election, the Downfall of Jerry Falwell Jr., and the New Religious Film ‘Fatima’

Jorge Lamelas, Alejandra Howard and Stephanie Gil 
Photo Credit: Claudio Iannone
©2020 PICTUREHOUSE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

 

“I very much believe in the idea of belief, that it is an endearing human condition. No matter how horrendously it’s exploited, and how corrupt the ideas eventually become, it is something that I find heartwarming about the human character—needing to believe in something outside of yourself.” – Nick Cave, as told to your author in 2013

 

As America approaches a presidential election / civil war that apparently will be taking place along a cultural Maginot Line (Economy? What economy?), it seems deliciously appropriate that the fall of one of its most prideful generals has spectacularly exposed the hypocrisy of one side’s so-called-moral self-righteousness. Indeed, Jerry Falwell Jr., the as-it-turns-out-but-really-we-already-knew Dissolute Dean of Evangelical bulwark Liberty University has been caught with his pants down and the cameras rolling—an inconvenient backdrop to the rollout of the Republican National Convention propaganda machine, whose speechmakers really just wanted you to focus on what puppy-murdering communists their opponents are.

Into this Ringling Bros extravaganza of a week comes the release of the new film Fatima (now streaming on all platforms), which tells the story of three young shepherd children—brother and sister Francisco and Jacinta, plus cousin Lúcia—who in the southern Portuguese town of the title in 1917, claimed they had several encounters with Her Etherealness the Virgin Mary. For historical context, it should be noted that in that same year, as WWI raged across Europe—and the Russian Proletariat Revolution finally succeeded—a progressive, secularizing Republican (that word meant something different back then) government in Portugal provoked a fervent backlash from the nation’s more devout and conservative populace…as tended to happen, and tends to still happen.

It’s also important to note that in February of the following year, the great influenza pandemic broke out, just as the war was moving towards its end, and eventually killed millions throughout Europe—including two of the Fatima children, Jacinta and Francisco.

 

Stephanie Gil, Lúcia Moniz and Maribel Lopera Sierra.
Photo Credit: Claudio Iannone
©2020 PICTUREHOUSE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

Now, anyone short of possessing a Richard Dawkins level of seething religious intolerance, can readily discern that Fatima the film is not of the shamelessly proselytizing variety turned out by so many “Evangelical” film factories (and likely co-produced by Stephen Baldwin and / or—erm…—Kirk Cameron). Rather, it seeks to immerse the viewer in the ineffable-slash-fantastical, by re-telling a story that even the Papacy gave its holy thumbs up to, eventually, in October of 1930.

It opens with its ideological intentions on full display: war is bad, we must seek peace. The Angel of Portugal comes to Lúcia first (a warm up act for Mary), showing her terrible visions of the war, and ruefully worrying to the child that, “They will never stop.” One can picture here the collective eye-rolling of today’s hawkish Army of Christ, who are ever busy electing politicians whose primary objective seems to be the incessant jacking up of the already corpulent American military budget.

The kids eventually relay their wondrous sighting of the Virgin and, as usual, the adults go and ruin everything. One incredulous parent sneers, “Why would the Mother of God choose you? What’s so special about you?” (Gee, thanks Mom.) And a grumpy priest just makes things worse by scolding, “It could have been the Devil. He often disguises himself.” (To be fair, we have long suspected this of Mitch McConnell.)

 

 

Someone then quite reasonably suggests, “What harm can three little children possibly do?”

But it’s not the tikes who are the problem. Rather, we see both the Catholic Church and the liberal mayor shamefully using them as political pawns. The latter worries that too much faith will hinder progressive reforms (to be fair, that point is still being proven to this day); the former is never happy when the holy narrative steers away from the established script. At this point, it’s actually hard not to wish that writer-director Marco Pontecorvo had had enough cheek to have included at least one scene where the grownups all start speaking in the indecipherable honking of the adults of Peanuts cartoons, to decisively remind us how big people are always the dumdums, and how the little ones are always so full of wonder and possibility.

Still, if we’re being critically honest, the “encounter” scenes could have been handled a bit more enigmatically (someone should have thought to give Mary an “aura”). And so the cutesy guilelessness of their interactions with the Virgin Mother do come off a bit cloying and corny.

But Mary does eventually take a bit of a vengeful turn, forcing upon the children a horrifying vision of the Fires of Hell. “If we do not stop insulting God, there will be a war worse than this one.” The action then cuts to a battlefield strewn with the broken bodies of soldiers, as if to conclusively drive home the seriousness of her threat. Religion, as we all know, needs a bit of fear to make its point.

 

Goran Višnjić and Joaquim de Almeida
Photo Credit: Claudio Iannone
©2020 PICTUREHOUSE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

All of this is interspersed with flash-forwards to Harvey Keitel’s Professor Nichols interviewing an 82-year-old Sister Lúcia (Sônia Braga) in Coimbra in 1989, for a book he is writing about her. They spar much more playfully, though neither is allowed a philosophical victory over the other.

“What is faith, if not the search for the truth?,” she parries.

“An inexplicable truth, which breeds irrational hope,” he thrusts.

No surprise, the trailer for Fatima sells it with the heart-tugging tagline, “Three little children received a message of peace that changed the world forever.” (Insert exasperated sigh here.) Would that the world had actually changed. Exactly 22 years later, the Nazis invaded Poland, and no amount of goodness in the hearts of believers would be able to save the Jewish people from the ensuing Holocaust. And then there was Stalin and Pol Pot and Rwanda and Srebrenica…you know.

The film is ultimately about the courageous steadfastness of little Lúcia’s convictions—which surely stand in noble opposition to the insidious intentions of today’s religious hucksters peddling phony salvation for immense profit; or, as will be the case for the next three months, those faking piety in order to retain political power. But whatever your belief system, Fatima at least offers an earnest, endearing ecclesiastical respite from the endless parade of “holy” charlatans currently flashing across our screens.

And, well, we certainly look forward to the presidential misspelling of the title in an upcoming tweet.

 

Harvey Keitel 
Photo Credit: Armanda Claro
©2020 PICTUREHOUSE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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