Year: 2020
Production Co: Origin Entertainment
Director: Marco Pontecorvo
Writer: Marco Pontecorvo/Valerio D'Annunzio/Barbara Nicolosi
Cast: Stephanie Gil, Joachim de Almeida, Harvey Keitel

It's a fictionalised account of a historical story with quite a strong theme straight from Hollywood – of sticking to your guns and standing up for what you believe when the whole world is against you, made all the harder in this case on the protagonists because she's just a child.

It's the story of the three Portuguese shepherd children who became famous during the First World War after claiming they were visited by the spirit of the Virgin Mary in a field.

Lucia and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta are herding their flock and playing in the grassy forests near their village home when a kindly, graceful woman appears to them, explains who she is and tells them they must pray, make sacrifices, do penance for the sinners of the world and return to the same field every day each month for more wisdom and religious instruction.

As we're told during the film's opening, Portugal was moving towards being a more secular republic, and the last thing the local authorities want when they're counting their dead from the battlefields of France and Belgium is for the world to believe their kids are indoctrinated enough to believe the Virgin Mary is appearing to them. Later, the church itself sends senior clergy to investigate the claims and even a monsignor tries to get the three kids to recant.

The worst however is that Lucia's headstrong and educated mother doesn't believe her, leaving an 11 year old girl who's always been taught piety and honesty to try and stand her ground against everyone in her life she loves and trusts, two younger kids her only allies.

She brings shame on her family and stress on her mother by refusing to change her story and admit her and her cousins were just bored and wanted the attention, with some of the villagers harassing and ostracising the family for the trouble she's causing. But word of the appearances and prophecies spreads fast among the more devout, and at the last visitation in October 1917 almost 70,000 people had gathered to hear what the three children had to say.

One of the most interesting things about the true story that I didn't know was that the three kids had pleaded with the apparition to show everyone else she was real because not being believed was causing them so much trouble, and that she promised she'd do so at the next gathering.

Called the Miracle of the Sun, all 70,000 of those present witnessed the sun seem to 'dance' in the sky, zipping back and forth, bathing the local landscape with different colours and at one point appearing to thunder murderously toward the earth, ballooning in size before going back to its original shape and position. The Catholic Church officially accepted the occurrences as fact in 1930.

Because of the period and setting the cinematography is fairly dry – all dust, grass and various shades of Earth tones and candle light. The three kids also do as well as child actors probably could, but a production of even this small size asks a lot of them, and despite all three of them doing their best very earnestly (star Stephanie Gil as Lucia, 16 at the time playing a 10 year old, is particularly watchable and holds her own, appearing in almost every scene), they're not really pros.

There are also two sequences when Mary is showing the kids some of the prophecies she makes that are weird enough to feel a bit out of place. One is a nightmarish vision of World War II, which was still 25 years in the future, but the other is a VFX riot of swirling fire depicting hell itself – suddenly I was waiting for Keanu Reeves to show up, wondering if it was a sequel to Constantine.

There's also a framing device which I found a bit superfluous, where Harvey Keitel plays a journalist interviewing the much older Lucia after her lifetime service as a Catholic nun and puts various hard questions (albeit gently) to her about her claims.

I figured the film as a whole only got made because of the involvement of a Hollywood star so they had to create the role for him, which is fair enough, but there's one amazing bum note where he quite plainly stumbles over a line and it still made it into the final edit. It doesn't help the the credibility of the whole subplot being there at all.

It's an interesting true life case and if you're interested in learning more about it while keeping in mind it's a screenwriter's interpretation of the events, watching this film is a lot livelier than reading a Wikipedia article about it.

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