To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
“A fact-based film that succeeds in being both artful and reverent is a rare thing. The 13th Day succeeds,” says the Register’s film critic of the latest Fátima movie.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
13th Day is the best movie ever made about Fátima — the most
beautiful and effective, as well as one of the most historically accurate.
Distilled to the bare essence of the
events, mediated through evocative visuals and mood rather than character-based
drama, The 13th Day has a clarity and intensity
of a defining event in childhood that we rehearse in our minds for the rest of
That is, indeed, how The
13th Day approaches the apparitions at Fátima in 1917, through the
eyes of 30-year-old Sister Lúcia de Jesus Rosa Santos, living in seclusion at
the Carmelite convent in Spain, writing the second of her six memoirs.
From the gathering darkness of the
times — the first World War, the Bolshevik revolution, the fall of the
Portuguese monarchy and the Republican government’s war against religion in
Portugal — to tiny, isolated Fátima, timeless in the way of childhood memories
until the event that changed everything, Sister Lúcia’s memories are imbued
with an aura of reverie and contemplation by striking visuals, an effective
score and a stark, simple narrative.
Shot on a tiny budget by first-time
feature filmmakers Ian and Dominic Higgins, The 13th Day was
filmed using high-definition digital video, largely in rich black-and-white
chiaroscuro, with occasional strategic use of color.
Soft focus allows light to bleed
around objects, a look at times reminiscent of the diffuse, “wet” look that
Robert Bresson wanted for early masterpiece Diary of a Country Priest,
which also used the device of a protagonist writing down his memories to tell
Like Bresson, the Higgins brothers
are artists by training, and compose individual shots with the care of a
Vermeer painting or an Adams photograph. At the same time, the world of The
13th Day has a visionary, almost dreamlike artifice unlike Bresson’s
minimalism and objectivity.
Characters go over events in their
minds, and memory and imagination run together at times, as when Father
Ferreira’s obliquely phrased suspicions echo with unsettling directness in
Lúcia’s psyche, or when the rural administrator Arturo dos Santos’ fears about
local unrest come to a head in a disturbing nightmare.
Green-screen technology and other
camera and computer effects are employed to construct images that sometimes
appear half real, creating an on-screen world that feels more like a painting
than a typical film.
In fact, there is something of a
silent-film feel to The 13th Day, though
it has an ordinary soundtrack complete with dialogue (in English) and score.
The dialogue is simple and direct, with vignette-like incidents rather than a
Bucolic, rustic, sheltered for the
moment from the evils of the larger world, Fátima first appears as a happy
place for 10-year-old Lúcia and her younger cousins Jacinta and Francisco. At
the Cova da Iria (the pastureland where the
apparitions occurred), they watch the family’s sheep, and quiet Francisco pipes
for playful Jacinta, who loves to dance.
When the Lady comes, it is as if the
world itself has changed. It begins with the first flicker of color, like an
almost imperceptible flash of lightning, and, in fact, the children think it
may begin to thunder. Then there is only the Lady. She is a vision of light,
but her words, fittingly, we hear only from the voice of Sister Lúcia.
What she tells us is, of course, the
message of Fátima: praying the Rosary for peace, embracing suffering for the
salvation of souls, consecration to Mary, the three secrets, the vision of
hell, the need for the consecration of Russia, the warning of another world
war, and the assassination of the bishop in white.
All of this is portrayed much more
faithfully and in greater detail than in the best-known cinematic version of
this story, the 1952 Warner Bros. production The Miracle of Our Lady of
Fátima, a decent Golden Age melodrama standing in the long shadow of
Song of Bernadette. Compared to the earlier film, The
13th Day is more interesting as a film as well as a more authentic
telling of the story.
Although both productions did
shooting on location in Fátima, The 13th Day more
persuasively evokes the visionaries’ peasant rural milieu. And while some
dramatic license has been taken, there’s nothing like the embellishments of the
Warner Bros. production, with Gilbert Roland’s charismatic rogue as color
character, audience surrogate and climactic convert.
That’s not to say that The
13th Day takes no liberties. Lúcia’s mother, Maria, harshly
unbelieving of her daughter, is accurately portrayed, but the depiction of her
father, António, crediting his daughter’s story is not. (According to Father
John de Marchi’s account, António Santos regarded the whole matter as female
hysteria and refused to involve himself.)
The film omits the angelic
appearances the children witnessed prior to the Marian apparitions, and it
telescopes the Lady’s six appearances into four on-screen visions, if I counted
correctly. Also elided is Francisco’s initial difficulty in seeing and hearing
the visions, along with the Lady’s admonition that he would have many Rosaries
to say before he was ready for heaven.
One could quarrel, too, with the
film’s Lúcia. With her preference for solitude from the start and her brief,
blurted answers, she’s a credible portrait of a young visionary, with
gratifying simplicity of character and artless lack of guile, but not
necessarily the historical Lúcia, who was merry, bright, affectionate and
For sheer fidelity to the facts, the
1992 Portuguese production Apparitions at Fátima (1992)
is the film to beat. A modest production made without the benefit of The
13th Day’s digital effects, Apparitions at Fátima
has an almost docudrama-like simplicity, with very simple effects for the
visions and sometimes intrusive voice-over and score.
Apparitions at Fátima realizes
the events of the story, but doesn’t make them into compelling art.
The 13th Day does,
while remaining gratifying close to the facts. A fact-based film that succeeds
in being both artful and reverent is a rare thing. The
13th Day succeeds.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic at
CONTENT ADVISORY: Fleeting infernal imagery;
imprisonment and verbal menacing of children. Fine family viewing. Pre-order
the DVD at Ignatius.com.