A Vision of Our Lady of Fatima in London

Each of us has a part to play in the world of the Arts — to build the New Jerusalem from the ruins of our modern Babylon.

(photo: Photo credit: K.V. Turley)

It was a bright summer’s day. I had walked the streets of suburban London through the midday heat. Then I left the glare behind and entered a darkened room. Before me was Our Lady of Fatima; it seemed that she spoke directly to me. She talked of sin, penance and of the need for reparation.

Then a voice shouted: ‘Cut!’

It is not every day that one leaves the familiarity of London streets and meets a vision. But then it is not every day that one visits a sound stage where a film about the events that took place at Fatima nearly 100 years ago is being shot. That was precisely what I had come to observe on a hot summer’s day.

The first thing to say is that Our Lady was mesmerising. The actress playing her did not just look the part, her every movement seemed to inhabit it. When I talked to the Casting Directors they identified one quality that the actress they had chosen possessed that the others who had been auditioned did not – stillness.  As they said this, I knew that their casting was inspired.

The man who had shouted ‘Cut!’ was Stefano Mazzeo. He is a man on a mission. It is a mission quite unlike any I have come across in the film world. He used to work for the British Ministry of Defence. His role there is something about which he can speak little now. Perhaps, this is of no consequence. What is of significance is that for the last five years he has been making mini-series for Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). His mission is simple: to correct the distortions that have arisen around certain aspects of Catholic history – the so-called ‘Black Legends’. So, starting with a mini-series on the Crusades and then moving on to the Inquisition – this last one is being aired this Fall – his films tell of what really happened as opposed to what some think happened.  Next year, on the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s nailing of Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Mazzeo will tackle the Protestant Revolt of the 16th Century.

As you can imagine, Mazzeo is a man whose mission has given him a drive and focus often missing in secular filmmaking.  I was curious to discover whether his artistic vision matched the clarity and force of his theology. Happily, it quickly became apparent that Mazzeo is, first and foremost, a filmmaker. He gave me as much time as he could, but I sensed that all the while his mind was on his script, on his actors, on his camera position, on the production he was leading. He is serious about making films that are as good as anything that the secular mainstream produces. He understands that the production values must be of a similar standard as those currently on view on most television channels. Otherwise, his message will be lost: no one will watch – the sympathy of his co-religionists for the subject matter and for the project will only go so far.

In between the making of the ‘Black Legends’ trilogy for EWTN, he is shooting a docu-drama on Fatima. When I caught up with him, he was ‘green screening’ the apparitions that occurred in that Portuguese village.   Green screening is when the actors stand in front of a giant green screen and interact with thin air. What it is in the script that they are talking to is added later by animation or special effects. This is always a demanding process for crew, actors and director. There is an air of unreality about everything on the set.  In a sense, that is the challenge.

Mazzeo works with a small crew. His cinematographer is from Slovakia. Michal Benko looked tired when I met him that summer’s day, but then I have never met a cameraman who wasn’t fatigued. Filming is demanding work that requires sustained concentration. Mazzeo’s co-producer is Tony Plumridge. Plumridge is a director in his own right; he has both produced and directed for EWTN. His wife, Ellen, too, has contributed much to the production as location scout and casting director. On the set there were costume and make-up artists; there was a catering manager just as in any other production in the film world. And always the hot lights that beat down on the actors in their bulky costumes.  

It was, nevertheless, a happy set. When I arrived, the cast and crew were breaking for lunch. They were excited about the production. This was all the more surprising and impressive as they had spent almost a full week holed up on this sound stage in front of the green screen. This was about to change though. The following week they were to begin filming aspects relating to the Third Secret of Fatima including the assassination of a pope. This was to be filmed outside London in Surrey with a full battery of military and weapons and a great many extras. The ambition of Mazzeo and his production is never in doubt.

Talking to Mazzeo about this, it was clear, however, that he was as comfortable with the intimacy of the green screen directing as he was with the challenges of filming a large crowd scene out of doors. By now, he said, he was used to it. Any man who has navigated the filming of the Crusades and the Inquisition must enjoy attempting to convey not just the broad sweep of history but also the challenges of a broad cinematic canvas also. That he has been able to execute these large-scale dramas is commendable, even miraculous.

EWTN is the production company for these series. It funds, at least in part, these productions. Needless to say, it is getting its money’s worth. Mazzeo told me that, when he was arranging insurance for his film shoot, he was asked by the insurance company to state the budget. Given what he was planning to do, they assumed that the budget stated was ‘per episode’. Mazzeo had to clarify that the figure given was for the total shoot. The insurers were amazed. I’m not. It takes faith to make these films.

The ‘Fatima’ shoot has taken Mazzeo to many countries over six months – to Russia, Portugal and now to England. He was tired when I met him; I had seen this tiredness before. It is that of a man straining to complete what he loves doing, at whatever cost to himself. In some ways, I did not need to interview Mazzeo; I just had to look at him.

There was something else, however, present on the set - something intangible. I noticed it the minute I walked in from the busy street outside. While talking to everyone, I sensed it all the time, but still I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  Only at the end did the matter clarify, and it came from observing two very different acting experiences.

The camera stopped rolling around 6pm and as some actors went home, another troupe arrived. They were a mixed group – all ages, men and women, some teenagers. What happened next, I was not expecting. Those familiar with the apparitions at Fatima will know of the vision of Hell that the children, Lúcia, Jacinta and Francisco, were given. The actors playing the souls in hell were now to be rehearsed. 

Mazzeo had sat watching the actors arrive. He had said nothing to them as they chatted and prepared themselves. Then, at last, he stood up and, as the room fell quiet, he addressed the gathered throng.  He told them that what he was about to speak of they might not believe in – but the characters that they played certainly did. He then set to work taking each character through the specific suffering of hell they were to embody. As the lights dimmed, music that had been specially composed for the sequence was played at full volume; the ensemble piece began to be performed. It proved not only shocking, but also terrifying, disturbing. After that, I had no doubts about Mazzeo as a director of actors. I also witnessed the power of the production upon these actors, the majority of whom, I suspect, had never heard of the events at Fatima.

Another experience equally memorable stays with me yet. This was the filming of the apparition of the Holy Family - Our Lady and St. Joseph with the Child. This was a silent apparition. Nothing was said. Instead, an act was performed:  together the Holy Patriarch and the Child made a sign of blessing upon the whole world as the Virgin watches.  These things, especially with child actors take time. It took a number of takes to get this sequence just right. There was no sound anywhere on the set as the blessing was repeated silently, over and over. It had a strangely hypnotic effect. But it was more than just the stilling effect of a repeated gesture. Only later did it become clear to me: the camera was being symbolically blessed, just as the camera was imparting the blessing of Fatima to the wider world through this production. This is, in essence, the mission of Catholic filmmakers, one caught in the gesture that they were creating for this sequence yet one eloquent of a greater spiritual reality.

It was now late, and I had to leave. But, as I did so, I felt that I had experienced more than just a film set. Mazzeo and his cast and crew seemed part of a greater plan, one that I had only glimpsed at the very end but had mysteriously sensed throughout.

Leaving the studio, the sun had long since gone. The night had fallen. Suddenly, I remembered why this long suburban road was familiar to me. There, before me, were a small number of men and women praying outside a ‘clinic’.  As they came into view, another vision returned from earlier in the day. That vision that had been created by a mere handful of men and women and children with limited financial resources though a deep well of faith. With it, came a conviction that each of us has a part to play in the world of the Arts - to build the New Jerusalem from the ruins of our modern Babylon.