In 1917, three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, reportedly saw a vision of a lady in a cloud. News spread that it was the Blessed Virgin Mary and the crowds expanded monthly. THE MIRACLE OF OUR LADY OF FATIMA (1952) explores the age-old combination of fear, faith, and religious persecution. But the performances by the three children are never cloying and Gilbert Roland’s breezy role as the town skeptic helps offset some of the film’s more overtly religious moments.
The post-war era saw a rise in religious-themed films that peaked in the 1950s, with Biblical-inspired tales such as DAVID AND BATHSHEBA and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and fictional stories such as THE ROBE and BEN-HUR. Warner Bros., which had made its fame on gangster pictures, didn’t seem comfortable exploring questions of faith. And without the star power of a Gregory Peck, Richard Burton, or Charlton Heston, FATIMA has never occupied the same ranking in cinema history as some of the bigger budget titles. Still, the film is an interesting introduction to the story. Max Steiner also takes a rare foray excursion into religious-themed film music.
Like an earlier “vision” film, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, FATIMA focuses on the effects of religious phenomena, rather than spectacle. As such, Steiner relies on his years of scoring Warner Bros. melodramas to get to the heart of the characters. The score has just the right touch of piety, awe and wonder without ever feeling oppressive. As with many religious flicks, “awe” becomes “ah” in the use of wordless choir. Thankfully, Steiner never overplays the vocal heft.
Energetic mandolin music gives color to the Portuguese locale and Gilbert’s skeptical Hugo gets a charming theme of his own. Amid all the polyphonic piety, Steiner gets to flex his musical muscles with some fine action music as the Administrator’s (Frank Silvera) soldiers attack the crowd waiting on the Cova for the appearance of the “Lady”. But the success of the score rests on the dramatic writing for the visions and the solar miracle at the end of the film.
Steiner received his 24th Oscar nomination. But what keeps the score from being top-drawer Steiner is the overuse of Gounod’s “Ave Maria”. Early film music—and Steiner’s career in particular—liberally borrowed classical and popular tunes to clue audiences in to particular places and emotions. But by the early ’50s the practice was becoming careworn. And no matter how cleverly Steiner makes use of Gounod’s famous tune, its familiarity detracts from Steiner’s accomplishment.
Heathen that I am, I went into my first viewing of FATIMA years ago completely unaware of the story. But the film’s simple telling of a remarkable vision (whether or not you believe its veracity) moved me. That was thanks in no small part to Steiner’s prodigious skill. And, yes, perhaps even Schubert’s famous tune.