Sunday, January 16, 2011


Although like Monty Woolley in THE BISHOP'S WIFE, I consider myself to "have no religion," I was raised Catholic and I still find it difficult to resist Hollywood portrayals of Catholicism (if only all priests were like Bing Crosby in GOING MY WAY). Based on an actual event, this film opens with some brief context: in 1910, a socialist uprising in Portugal led to anti-clergy policies including the closing of many churches. By 1917, churches were re-opened but the priests were very cautious about stepping on the toes of the civil administrators. One spring morning, three children playing in a field see a vision of a beautiful lady, in the sky above a tree. She doesn't identify herself but she tells the children to have everyone pray the rosary each day for world peace, and asks them to return to the same spot on the 13th of each month for the next six months. Hugo, a charming village ne'er-do-well (and atheist), advises the children not to talk about the vision, but they do. The priest says they are just suffering from daydreams and downplays the growing talk of a miracle, but soon pilgrims are coming from out of town to try and catch a glimpse of the lady, whom the children think is the Virgin Mary. Eventually, large crowds are present when the children hear the lady warn them that another large-scale war is coming, and she wants Russia consecrated in her name. Government men come in, portrayed a bit like Hollywood gangsters, and try to force the children to recant, but the plan backfires and more people than ever show up for the visitations. On the sixth and final visit, hundreds of onlookers see the sun move erratically in the sky and there are many conversions, including that of Hugo.

This film follows the accepted narrative of the miracle of Fatima quite reverently, throwing in some anti-socialist propaganda for good measure. Perhaps because the protagonists are children, we don't get terribly wrapped in them as characters, though Susan Whitney is fine as Lucia, the oldest child. Gilbert Roland adds some needed interest as Hugo, and Frank Silvera has the thankless role of the chief administrator, the closest thing the story has to a villain. This plays out like a community theater version of the earlier SONG OF BERNADETTE, which was about similar visions which took place at Lourdes years earlier. It must be difficult for filmmakers to decide how much of a heavenly vision to show on screen. In BERNADETTE, we don't see anything, but here, we see a rather static image of a pretty lady in the sky, and we hear her voice talking to the children. Because of this device, it was never clear to me if any of the pilgrims actually saw the Virgin Mary themselves, or were just ecstatic to be in the presence of a miracle. The "Ave Maria" is used extensively in the background score. Directed by John Brahm, who is not nearly as interesting here as he was with his earlier Gothic thrillers THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE. [TCM]

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