MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Faith-based films have been around forever. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent film version of The Ten Commandments included not only the story of Moses but also a contemporary story about how following God’s law was relevant and necessary. Current faith-based films soft pedal Jesus and strive to impart significant themes in a way that will appeal to that “crossover audience”.
Sixty years ago – in the fifties and sixties – even though there was a deep divide between Protestant and Catholic, Roman Catholicism was often seen by Hollywood as the purest form of religious devotion. Movies based on saints and miracles were considered worthy of big-name stars and award consideration. In 1952 Warner Brothers released The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, promoted as a fact-based account of three children in Portugal who received a vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in 1917. The film was widely promoted and Max Steiner’s music was nominated for an Academy Award.
Fatima is another version of that story. Although this film features a renowned international cast (including Harvey Keitel and Sônia Braga) and high production values, it was released in just a few theaters, barely reviewed, and quickly moved to Video on Demand limbo. It was so obscure that I was surprised to discover that it was an English language movie.
It’s also a film that celebrates Catholicism of earlier generations. It is steeped in Mariology and relates a story in which Mary not only predicts future events but instructs her three young witnesses to return to see her at a future date. The children’s testimony inspires an entire village to witness an incredible demonstration of the presence of God. Before that occurs, the children are encouraged by Mary to pray the Rosary repeatedly so that war would end and peace would prevail. There is political oppression that is unable to thwart the children’s witness. And there is plenty of guilt along the way, with images of death and hellfire thrown in for good measure. (Despite the PG-13 rating, this is not a film for children.)
Back in 1952 version when The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima was released, its theology was mainstream Catholicism; sixty years later, devout stories of miracles and sainthood are now a subset of Christian viewers so negligible that this movie could not find a viewership. It’s kind of a miracle that this film was made.
While I don’t suggest screening Fatima for your church’s youth group (with an appropriate CCLI license, of course), I rather liked this movie. It is well-acted, featuring beautiful location shooting, stunning special effects, and a cast of hundreds of extras. It is sincere without a hint of irony. It also has two beautiful closing credit songs featuring Andrea Bocelli. It also recounts an incredible story that is well documented and the basis for regular pilgrimages to Fatima and a couple of sainthoods, as well. (Keeping things relevant, there’s also a shoutout to the Spanish Flu.)
Most significantly, Fatima is a plea for world peace. That message never goes out of style. Perhaps we should be listening to Mary, as well.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Four halos: An interesting throwback to religious films of earlier generations, with its story of demanding faith and miraculous visions.
Three pitchforks: Literally terrifying visions of hell and war; scenes of death and destruction; implied self-inflicted pain; Guilt.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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