An attractive boxed set of three films all with themes relating to Catholicism, Warner Home Video's Films of Faith Collection is diverse enough in its subjects and settings, as well as its filmmaking styles as to never feel repetitious, and though the movies are of varying quality, each has something to offer.
The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952) was one of a slew of Hollywood Christian faith-based films popular in the early-1950s, which included such oddities as The Next Voice You Hear... (1950) and, most bizarrely, Red Planet Mars (1952). Often these films reflected anticommunist paranoia, contrasting pious, God-fearing Christians with scurrilous atheist Commies. This turns up in the otherwise quite good Our Lady also.
Set in 1917 Portugal seven years after atheist "socialists" have overthrown the monarchy, the film's focus is on 10-year old Lucia Abobora dos Santos (Susan Whitney), the daughter of sheep farmers who, while caring for the flock with younger cousins Jacinta (Sherry Jackson) and Francisco Marto (Sammy Ogg), is visited by a heavenly spirit that may or may not be the Virgin Mary. The vision promises to return on the same day for each of the next six months.
The younger children cannot contain their excitement, and word of the visitation spreads like wildfire, though Lucia's mother, Maria Rosa (Angela Clarke) initially doesn't believe their story and local priest Father Ferreira (Richard Hale) is skeptical. Partly this is out of concern that the growing interest in the children will only cause the anti-Catholic government to close down their church and arrest Ferreira.
Most of the film sees the children put through one test of faith after another, including a manipulative but undeniably harrowing scene where they're arrested by the district magistrate (Carl Milletaire) and threatened with torture and death. Meanwhile, the monthly visions continue, and throngs of unstoppable believers besiege the village of Fatima.
Whether or not you accept The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima at face value is beside the point as, if nothing else, the film makes for fascinating, offbeat entertainment. The anticommunist angle borders on the outrageous and is extravagantly overdone, particularly when one considers that Free Masons, rather than Soviet-styled Communists, actually controlled Portugal at this time, though according to the real-life Lucia, one of the Holy Mother's "Three Secrets" way back in 1917 was indeed a stern warning about the Godlessness of Russia ("There is an evil spirit," She says), along with a prediction of another World War. In the film, the government officials come off rather like Major Strasser and his underlings in Casablanca ("Who are these brats!?" one petulantly asks), but slightly less the extreme slobbering brutes in other anti-Red films of the era.
Except for the addition of arguably charming agnostic rogue Hugo da Silva (Gilbert Roland, the film's only "name" actor), added to soften the message for non-Catholic moviegoers, the film sticks pretty closely to reported events, and includes a fascinating postscript, several minutes of footage shot in 1951 Fatima that brings the story up to date.
Sister Lucia Abobora dos Santos herself died only last year; she was nearly 98 years old. Reportedly among her last visitors was Mel Gibson (!), who apparently presented her with a copy of The Passion of Christ. I guess the actor-director can now claim just two degrees of separation from the Virgin Mary.
The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima has endlessly fascinating ties to other recent events, including a controversial, long withheld (by the Vatican) "Third Secret" revealed to Lucia that, depending on what one chooses to believe, either predicted the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981 or the end of the world. When she died, months prior to the death of John Paul II, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who in 1984 stated the secret dealt with "end times," ordered her cell sealed off, possibly to censor additional revelations.
The movie of The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima benefits from the lack of star names (though a few familiar character players such as Jay Novello and Michael Mark turn up) and the three children by 1950s standards deliver excellent performances. (Whitney seems to have disappeared in the years since its release, Ogg became a minister, and after several years on Make Room for Daddy, Jackson went on to play one heck of a luscious babe on Star Trek.)
Max Steiner's booming score quotes Ave Maria far more than necessary, but other production aspects, including the integration of Portugal and Los Angeles exteriors with an elaborate (if not entirely convincing) indoor set are expertly handled.
The Nun's Story (1959) benefits from the authenticity of its "behind closed doors" look into convent life and European flavor of Fred Zinnemann's impressively delicate direction of playwright Robert Anderson's script (from Kathryn Hulme's book), and the frankly mesmerizing beauty of Audrey Hepburn, who was never more lovely than she is here, thanks partly to Franz Planer superb cinematography, one of the decade's best.
The film opens in 1930 Belgium where Gabrielle Van Der Mal (Hepburn, who herself was born in Brussels) leaves her family, including her beloved father (Dean Jagger), a noted physician, to enter the convent. Inheriting her father's medical skill and highly educated, Gabrielle, now called Sister Luke, yearns to serve in the Belgian Congo, but her strong will proves as disadvantageous as it is an asset. She excels in her medical studies but unexpectedly is asked by the Reverend Mother to fail her medical exams on purpose - as a demonstration of the humility that she's unable to find on her own.
She eventually earns an assignment in Africa as a nurse under atheist Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch) but is further tested by additional hardships, including a nearly fatal battle with tuberculosis.
The Nun's Story is steeped in ritual and history that, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, is fascinating stuff. Cloistered life had never been dramatized in such detail before, and perhaps not since. The film is also one of the very few to successfully build itself around a conflict that is essentially internal and spiritual, and Hepburn and Zinnemann and Anderson pull it off remarkably well, with a main character whose obvious devotion alone cannot resolve fundamental conflicts of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The film was way ahead of its time in many respects, from its depiction of the mentally ill, to a surprisingly enlightened attitude (by 1950s standards) of colonial Africa.
Besides Jagger's excellent performance, a mix of top British and American actresses play various nuns, most of whom were unknown to movie audiences of the time: Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Beatrice Straight, Colleen Dewhurst (as a sanatorium patient) among them.
Like The Nun's Story, The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) has in its favor a fascinating "insider's look," in this case at the inner workings of the Vatican following the sudden death of an Elder Pope (John Gielgud) and the election and crowning of his successor. The film, adapted from Morris L. West's novel, also has a beguiling premise, setting its story against a tense Cold War environment on the verge of heating up, with Armageddon looming as China threatens to invade its neighbors when famine threatens large parts of Asia. Unfortunately, the film gets bogged down in all its pageantry and at least one utterly pointless subplot, while its naive attitude about Communist countries today seems ludicrously stereotyped.
Anthony Quinn stars as Russian Bishop Kiril Lakota, a political prisoner in Siberia who after 20 years of languishing in the mines is suddenly set free in a complex deal brokered by Soviet Premier Piotr Ilyich Kamenev (Laurence Olivier), coincidentally the man who formerly interrogated and tortured Kiril years before.
Kiril is flown to the Vatican, accompanied by controversial Father David Telemond (Oskar Werner), whose research and writings are before a tribunal headed by Cardinal Leone (Leo McKern). At the Vatican, the Elder Pope recalls when, in Siberia, Kiril was "asked to deny the faith...they tied up seven priests and shot them, shot them before your eyes. And still you would not deny the faith." Partly because of this, the Pope appoints Kiril Cardinal, but dies soon after.
At the Conclave following the Pope's death, the various Cardinals are unable to elect a new Pope until one, Rinaldi (director-actor Vittorio De Sica), impressed by Kiril's confession that in Siberia he had stolen bread and nearly killed one of his guards to save another prisoner's life, nominates the Russian Cardinal. As Kiril looks on aghast others, including Leone and Cardinal Rahamani (Marne Maitland) join in. Soon Kiril, only months before a bishop in a Siberian prison camp, becomes Kiril I, the first non-Italian Pope since Adrian VI in 1523. But as the Pope-elect awaits coronation, his power and faith are tested as the world is on the brink of World War III and Kiril is asked to mediate with Chinese Chairman Peng (Burt Kwouk).
The Shoes of the Fisherman works best dramatizing the Conclave, and following reluctant Pope Kiril as he adjusts to his newfound responsibilities. The picture has an impressive "How Did They Do That?" quality, a seamless integration of studio sets, location shooting in and around the Vatican, and very good use of stock footage, some of which presumably was shot following the 1963 death of Pope John XXIII and the crowning of Pope Paul VI.
To this end Quinn shares several good scenes with Leo McKern's old Cardinal, who late in the film counsels Kiril on the loneliness that comes with leading the Catholic Church, a life "condemned to a solitary pilgrimage," he says. The excellent German actor Oskar Werner is likewise superb in a delicately-written role and his big scene, in which he expresses a kind of spiritual torture at being officially silenced by a faith from which he cannot turn away, in what is probably the film's best moment.
Sadly, the picture is much too caught up in its road show pageantry (though shot in 35mm Panavision, Shoes of the Fisherman was blown up to 70mm and released "hard-ticket"), lacking focus amid Erwin Hillier's lovely cinematography and Alex North's overly-emphatic score.
Though it's fun to watch Olivier, Frank Finlay, and Clive Revill sink their teeth into their Russian characters, the art direction by Edward Carfagno and George W. Davis suggest both the Soviet and Chinese leadership watch the world from extravagant, high-tech television monitors on austere SMERSH-like sets straight out of James Bond. Peng is a gross caricature, like something out of Jet Pilot or Big Jim McLain.
Worse, much worse, is the presence of David Janssen as George Faber, an Anderson Cooper-like TV reporter covering the Conclave. Janssen himself is okay, but his play-by-play is like something out of King Kong vs. Godzilla, where actor Michael Keith's newsman functions in exactly the same crude way. Adding to the tedium is a subplot involving Faber's troubled marriage to physician Ruth (Barbara Jefford) while sleeping with mistress Chiara (Rosemary Dexter). All this comes to a head when Ruth encounters Kiril on the streets of Rome, he having snuck away much like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (and, later on, like Kevin Kline's American President in Dave). None of this is believable or interesting.
Video & Audio
The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima is presented in its original full frame format in an excellent transfer of this WarnerColor production. The colors look great most of the time though get ugly and grainy during dissolves and other process shots. The Nun's Story looks great for a 1959 production shot for (what looks like) either 1.66:1 or 1:75:1 theatrical exhibition. The 1.77:1/16:9 DVD looks great, with good color and clarity. The Shoes of the Fisherman is 16:9 and in its original theatrical release aspect ratio. The Panavision image (original prints by Metrocolor) is very good throughout, and the presentation includes the original overture, intermission cue (at 1:23), entr'acte, and exit music. (One minor complaint: the layer change is so badly timed, coming at a critical dramatic moment that its appearance is almost comical.) The 5.1 soundtrack makes impressive use of North's score, with some directional dialogue and sound effects. However, at around 2:06 the soundtrack appeared very slightly out-of-synch, not more than a few frames. Most viewers won't even notice the problem, but others may find it very annoying.
All three films include French audio tracks, along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Both The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima and The Nun's Story (the latter 16:9) include spoiler-filled trailers best left unwatched until after you've seen the films. The Shoes of the Fisherman includes a Vintage Featurette running nine minutes and 4:3 letterboxed, with behind-the-scenes footage (with narration incorrectly stating the film was shooting in Super Panavision) and featuring a brief interview with novelist West. A 16:9 Theatrical Trailer is likewise filled with spoilers; don't watch it until you've seen the movie.
All three films are quite interesting, and make for an entertaining mini-film festival when run one after the other. And at less than $7 apiece after standard discounts, it's easy to rate this Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.