Filming Fátima: Interview With Filmmaker Marco Pontecorvo
The cowriter and director of a new film about Our Lady of Fátima talks about why he was drawn to the story and how he tried to realize the miraculous, from a very human Virgin Mary to surreal visions of war and hell.
While I’ve never seen a bad movie about the Marian apparitions at Fátima and the “Miracle of the Sun,” there’s certainly room to go beyond the films that have been made so far.
The best-known telling, the 1952 Hollywood film The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, is still beloved by Catholic viewers, but highly fictionalized and dated. The most authentic, the Portuguese-language Apparitions at Fátima (1992), is hard to find, and the score and voice-over narration are sometimes intrusive. Better than either of these, I like the 2009 art-house indie The 13th Day, but its minimalist style is off-putting to some.
I suspect the new film Fátima, co-written and directed by the Italian filmmaker Marco Pontecorvo, will surpass all of these as the go-to telling of this story, especially for Catholic viewers.
Best known as a cinematographer and director of photography on the big and small screens (his credits include Game of Thrones and the HBO miniseries Rome), Pontecorvo made his directorial debut with the acclaimed 2008 film Pa-Ra-Da, based on the true story of a street artist and clown who worked to help destitute street children by training them as circus performers.
Pontecorvo comes from filmmaking stock: His father, Gillo Pontecorvo, directed the 1966 classic The Battle of Algiers. The elder Pontecorvo was a secular Jew, but he married a Catholic woman, and Marco, who was baptized, describes himself as a believer. Intriguingly, among his father’s unfinished projects was a screenplay for a movie about Jesus.
I spoke with Pontecorvo from Italy via Zoom, a conversation not without technical and other communication issues. The discussion that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Fátima is scheduled to for theatrical release in North America on August 14.
Your father once told an interviewer that he could only make a movie he was totally in love with. Do you feel the same way?
Yes, absolutely. This was one of the things he transmitted to me and my two brothers. They don’t work in the film industry — one is a physicist, and one is a painter — but I think we all have the same attitude. When you start something, you have to love it and respect it. It’s mandatory, in a way. It was our father’s way, and now it’s our way.
I understand that you were acquainted with the Fátima story before taking on this project. What attracted you as a filmmaker to the story — how did you fall in love with this story?
The first script that I read, I thought there were beautiful things in the story, but I didn’t fall in love completely with the script.
What I loved was the story of this little girl, Lúcia, who has almost everyone against her. Everything started with this vision, which is a positive thing, but it looked at least for a moment like it was not so positive, because after the vision the mother didn’t really trust her, as well as most of the people.
You saw the movie. Everything is real — it’s taken from her books of memories and other elements. So we played with real elements; we tried to invent as little as possible, to respect what really happened.
Was there some particular thing that you learned about the real story while making the film that stuck with you that you found particularly striking or meaningful?
In that horrible moment — and we are living in a horrible moment as well — with the First World War happening, with all these people in poverty, illness and everything, Lúcia managed, with her strength and her beliefs, to bring together 70,000 people, or something like that, praying for peace.
I think it’s very important, not only for believers, when you trust something — a little girl has the strength to bring people together, praying for the peace of all the world. You can believe that she really saw the Virgin or not, but the story itself is important.
Any time that I see the best part of humanity is moving. I see actions that are really positive, and I say, “Ah, it is a pity that we are not always like that.” And we lose this possibility.
The fact that this girl can really get in touch with something that is beyond, that is beyond us — probably not all of us have this possibility because we have so many filters.
I like a lot the triangle between the Virgin Mary, the real mother and Lúcia. You can see, at the end, the two mothers finally together — the only moment where you see the Virgin Mary and someone else apart from the kids inside of the frame. Normally, it’s the kids and the Virgin Mary or the kids and the people. Never, until that moment, are the kids the link between what they are seeing and the people. So you see the Virgin Mary, the little girl in the middle, and we turn and arrive at the real mother. This is at the end, and they find balance in this triangle and a new balance in the family.
One of the things that I like is the incapability of this woman to cope with what was happening — even if she was really religious, she was so humble that she thought that it was impossible that her daughter would see the Virgin Mary. So this arc in their relationship was really important for the story; it was one of the things that I liked.
You talked about the positive side of the message of Fátima. Many people I know are attracted to that, but at the same time have a difficulty with the negative side, which we see in the film in the vision of hell. Today, even many religious people no longer believe in hell, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about what that horrific moment in your film may have to say to viewers today. [Note: I had to ask this question repeatedly.]
Every time you spoke about hell, you were breaking up! But I think I understood. It’s an incredible coincidence.
I tried to put myself inside of the kids of this period. We started from a painting in the church. For her, that’s the only way to imagine something that is quite impossible to imagine. It is a horrific vision, as you say, but coming from a painting, and this painting comes alive for her.
Hell, in that moment, I believe, was the war; the news coming from the front; the poverty … so many things. People were struggling. A year later, the Spanish flu destroyed — I don’t know — how many millions of people. So we can also call this hell.
I actually think that more disturbing for me is the vision that is something that is similar to a third world war, when they kill the pope, and everything is destroyed. I think this is one of the stronger messages that the Virgin brought.
We tried there to read what — between the lines — Lúcia wrote in her memories. For example, I put [in] the soldiers of the Second World War, but the sound of the airplane is the sound of jets that could be in a third world war. So it’s a mix.
There is something like St. Sebastian — there is a guy with a gun, and he shoots; and in the same shot, what hits is not a bullet but an arrow. So I was trying to make something like a big painting of all the possible stupidity of war and something horrible. For me, this is also hell. Actually, the vision of the hell and this second vision are linked together; this is the Third Secret of Fátima.
Why does there have to be negative images? The vision of hell is negative, but that’s part of life. You cannot believe only in something positive. You believe in something positive because there is something bad, as well.
I think the last message is positive because the possibility of something bad, like the war, exists, as well. That’s why we are praying for peace. If we were already in peace, then it would be less necessary to come together and pray for peace. I think the two things are linked together.
If I broke up when I asked about hell, I hope you hear this question loud and clear: You’ve made a movie about the Mother of Jesus. Your father once hoped to make a movie about Jesus himself— right around the time Roberto Rossellini made The Messiah, interestingly. I’m curious whether you know anything about your father’s thoughts for that project and whether a film about Jesus is something you could see yourself falling in love with.
I love a lot the screenplay of my father. It’s very beautiful. Even if he was agnostic, he had a very strong spirituality, I believe. I believe he was completely in love with the idea of Jesus as someone that was more a philosopher, someone that can see beyond, that can bring something very important in our life — rather than the Son of God, because he didn’t believe in God. We are a bit different there, I think, me and my father.
I actually want to read it again. It could be a possible new project. There is something in common with Fátima: Lúcia, for me, is also someone that can see beyond and can get in touch with another level in a way that not all of us have the possibility of doing.
I think he decided not to do it because he wanted the face of someone completely unknown. But the movie would cost a lot, like every period movie, and the producers would want a star. He was very straight, and he said to the producer, “I will never do it with a star.”
I think he was right. It’s better to have an unknown Jesus, with the right face and the right humanity.
Are you familiar with any of the other screen versions of the Fátima story?
I think the 1952 film was more a fairy tale — without taking anything away from it, but it was not what I want.
The vision of the Virgin Mary was completely different in the 1952 movie. She was floating in the air. I think this one is a lot more like a real woman, a mother. She’s barefoot. She walks on the real earth, even in the mud. I like her; she really was much more real than the 1952 Virgin Mary floating in the air.
The 13th Day, I feel, was poor and fake, probably because the budget was not that big. I didn’t really believe the characters, and it followed the story too literally.
We tried not to do that. We did try to follow the story, because you have to respect the story, but to raise questions and to go inside of the human beings — Lúcia, her mother — what they were feeling, why they were like that.