Documentaries encompass a pretty massive range of styles, approach to their subject matter, and objective. Some are highly journalistic. Some are artsy style-bombs where the subject matter almost takes a backseat to the execution. Often, they exist to educate us (thank you again, Sir David Attenborough). Sometimes they exist to pose a question more than to illuminate what we believe to be the answers. And sometimes, they exist to propagate an agenda or a polemic. In extreme cases, wherein certifiably false information is presented as fact we might call such documentaries propaganda. Sometimes polemical documentaries are sensationalistic, sometimes not (I still remember in the mid-nineties seeing a kooky doc about the Mayan calendar and the prophesied end of the world—December 27, 2012, by the way; I remember it to this day—that, even though I knew better, sent me to bed with a serious case of existential creepies. Sometimes agenda-ish documentaries are wildly convincing, sometimes not.
Sometimes you just don’t know what to make of something.
One hundred years ago, three children in Portugal claimed to receive a prophecy from the Virgin Mary. It interestingly coincided with some very weird celestial events seen by thousands and reported on extensively in 1917. The prophecy might have contained information about the demise of the Catholic Church and basically the entire world. But for some reason the Pope does not want you to know this. Why not? It’s a curious question, right? I mean, fictional Vatican conspiracies have been known to make certain writers and filmsters exceedingly popular and wealthy. Now there’s a documentary that seeks to expose a real one.
In Canada, a priest named Father Nicholas Gruner led, until his death a couple of years ago, a congregation of people devoted to something known as the Miracle of Fatima. If you’re Catholic or well-read you might already know about this. The Virgin Mary is purported to have appeared to three children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917 and given them some “secrets.” The oldest of these children went on to become a nun. Sister Lucia ultimately wrote these secrets down. They had to do with the end of the world being brought about sometime after 1950 by corruption within the Vatican. There was luckily a way to stop it: The consecration of Russia.
Not a typo.
You might also know that this has never happened because the Popes of the mid-20th century had an agreement to stay the hell out of Russia to minimize risk of antagonizing the Communists.
The Vatican Conspiracy kinda sorta follows Gruner’s quest to get the Pope to release the complete communications of Sister Lucia, because the mic-drop portion about consecrating Russia is officially said not to exist. It kinda sorta follows a timeline of apparitions of the Virgin Mary. (There’s one in Ecuador in the 1600s and presumably plenty more that don’t get brought up.) Director Paul Stark’s film asks: Are there in fact unreleased documents whose contents are desperately important, which are being kept secret by the Vatican for some reason? And is the Fatima prophesy coming to pass even as we speak?
These are two questions—one mystical, one political—and the problem is, both get answered with a resounding “yes” even though there’s a paucity of evidence. Remember when the writings of Nostradamus enjoyed a brief but intense little zeitgeisty moment and everyone was “interpreting” them? At least Nostradamus’s writings were available to read. This documentary suggests that Vatican II was the beginning of the crumble-from-within that would lead the world to a fiery lake of eternal torment, but we never hear from anyone who takes a different position. It does make a point that can be verified by scholars and clergy, which is that the sovereign power that had always previously rested with the Pope alone was distributed to the Bishops. Was this “corruption from within?” One could see it that way; others might not.
There is a recounting of a weird incident in which Gruner was beaten by some other clergymen. Other than “to make him shut up about freakin’ Fatima,” it’s not clear why this happened.
One of the main pieces of “evidence” used to make Gruner’s case is a series of photographs of a papal address outside St. Peter’s, in which Gruner appears to have been photoshopped out of the images. It’s never made clear who took the pictures, why, or why Gruner has copies of them or why erasing him from the image was a thing. It is clear that Gruner was convinced (perhaps correctly) that Pope Benedict’s security detail didn’t want Gruner getting too close to him. Why anyone would need to pretend he wasn’t in Rome that day is not a question the documentary answers, unless I blinked at the wrong moment.
The weirdest and most fascinating thing in this film, and I wish it had gotten more than ten seconds, is that after decades of papal refusal to consecrate Russia or the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin apparently actually asked the Vatican to do so. The Vatican declined. If the Fatima documents were to happen to contain Stuff That Will Actually Happen, that refusal sealed the deal on human mass-migration to eternal punishment, so you gotta wonder what’s going on there. And while you can’t believe everything Wikipedia coughs up, there’s apparently significant consensus that Sister Lucia herself, still alive in the time of Pope John Paul II, declared that this consecration of Russia had indeed been properly performed and “accepted by Heaven.” So, if the visionary herself was confirming the thing had been done, what’s the what here? Bishopric bickering over what does and does not constitute a consecration? You can get really deep into this thing; there are books about it and a lot of impassioned folks with opinions. Too bad most of them aren’t even mentioned in this film.
Ultimately, there are several interconnected stories here. A story about a Portuguese girl who believed the Virgin appeared to her and delivered a prophecy, became a Carmelite nun, and later wrote down what she experienced. The story of a Canadian priest who believed (perhaps rightly) that the nun’s writings were not fully released to the public even though that was Lucia’s express wish, and was possibly shut down by higher-ups in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. There is a big, big story about power and politics in Vatican City that could be told until that fiery lake comes to swallow us all. There is a story about the eternal conflict, in almost all religions in the world, between orthodoxy and mysticism. There is the big ol’ story about why humans commit themselves to organized religion in the first place, and I for sure had a question about why no one who said one syllable in this documentary was able to acknowledge that not believing in literal Hell is common to billions of residents of this planet. (And not just since 1950.)
If you are nuts for stories about the Catholic church and you don’t already know this one, yeah, by all means give it a watch. It is far enough to one end of the docu-spectrum that it shares a border with “advertorial,” though I think it would be mean-spirited and beside the point to call it propagandistic. It seeks to educate. It doesn’t do a very thorough job of it.
Director: Paul Stark
Release Date: January 25, 2018
Amy Glynn has not been involved in Vatican-related conspiracies … lately.