Fatima review – holy mother miracle retold with unbreakable faith

Picking fault with faith films on dramatic grounds is like objecting to explicit sex scenes for being “boring”. Believers may well be swept away by this glossy account of the 1917 Miracle of the Sun in Fátima, Portugal – witnessed by 30,000 people and already the subject of feature films in 1952 and 2009. But given the inherent lack of drama in the kind of unbreakable faith on display here, anyone wishing to tell the story needs to work much harder than this laboured treatment to wring any nuance, conflict or indeed true sublimity from it.

To be fair, director Marco Pontecorvo – son of The Battle of Algiers’ Gillo – doesn’t disgrace himself on the latter front. There’s an undeniable sacred frisson as Mediterreanean winds caress the olive trees and invisible feet flatten the saltgrass, as the Virgin Mary first visits three young shepherds Lúcia, Jacinta and Francisco, and anoints them as her messengers. The trio quickly attract followers among a war-weary populace eager for deliverance. But others think Lucia (Stephanie Gil) is just seeking attention, including the rational-minded mayor, eager to get a public order nightmare under control, and her own devout mother Maria Rosa (Lúcia Moniz), worried her daughter’s presumptuousness will anger Him upstairs.

The gathering Catholic freight train is recounted in flashback, as Harvey Keitel’s author puts up some token scepticism years later to the now Sister Lúcia – played with transfixing steadiness by Sônia Braga and who, in real life, died aged 97 in 2005. One question he poses her is why Mary would ask three young children to suffer. Indeed, insisting she knows what’s best for them, and that they keep the most challenging of her prophecies to themselves – including that two of them will die young – the Holy Mother comes across here a bit like the ultimate gaslighting parent. “Faith begins on the edges of understanding,” is the sister’s response.

In truth. Fatima is too secure in its faith to subtly probe such mysteries. Pontecorvo shoots the film radiantly – including a quick CGI excursion to hell – but there is something spiritually complacent about his slickness. As the shrouded Holy Mother strolls in across the plains once again, it’s like a heavenly Scottish Widows advert offering a discount on salvation.

• Fatima is released on 25 June, in cinemas and on digital platforms.