Marco Pontecorvo’s new film Fatima, a drama based on the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Portugal in 1917 and the three young seers who experienced them, debuted August 28 with balanced but mostly-favorable reviews in major outlets like CNN and The New York Times, as well as in Catholic publications. It’s encouraging that mainstream publications even paid attention to this movie, given the cringeworthy attempts that have too often characterized Christian film. Some of this attention most likely stems from the aspects of the story that seem uncannily relevant to our struggles with the coronavirus today. A postscript in the movie tells us that the two younger seers, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. And many Catholics will be struck by the scene of officials barring the door of the local parish and the grief of the priest who is thereby prevented from providing the sacraments.
But here I want to focus on one particular aspect of the Fatima script that is also relevant to our world a century later, though in a different way. Early in the film, the three shepherd children run to a promontory overlooking a landscape of rocky hills. As a game, Lucia, the eldest (Stephanie Gil), shouts “Ave!” to hear the word echo back, and the younger ones follow with “Maria!” They repeat this phrase “Ave Maria” alternately several times, counting the echoes that respond. Immediately, a loud thunderclap sounds out of a blue sky, frightening the children but ushering in the Lady. Thus, the first apparition begins.
Ave Maria, as Catholics know or can easily guess, is the beginning of the Hail Mary prayer in both Latin and Portuguese. But the children in this scene are not praying; steeped in Catholic belief and culture, they are merely shouting a familiar phrase to hear an echo. But the Lady they are calling to comes anyway. How much of this is accurate to what really occurred is hard to say, but the evocative scene points to an important truth: words and names have power.