Monday, June 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The 13th Day' (2009)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Once again, this project has taken me to an odd place, watching a movie broadcast on the obscure (but apparently long-running) Catholic network EWTN, which is for some reason part of my basic cable package. The 13th Day wasn't made for EWTN, but primarily for the Catholic home video market (although it also had some limited screenings sponsored by church and community organizations), and it's obviously the kind of thing that church youth groups would show to bored kids during a slow week to get them interested in religious history under the guise of entertainment. I wouldn't exactly call the movie entertaining, but it's a bit more artful than I expected, with stark, mostly black and white cinematography that occasionally resembles old silent films.

The story is based on the 1917 incident when three children in Fatima, Portugal, claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to them, and eventually tens of thousands of people flocked to the town in order to witness what they believed was a miracle on October 13, 1917 (Mary supposedly promised to appear on the 13th day of the month, six months in a row). Obviously since this movie is meant to support the idea of the miracle to an audience already open to believing it, there isn't any kind of skepticism or even subtlety in the way it's presented. Young Lucia (Filipa Fernandes) and her cousins Jacinta (Ana-Sofia Vilas Boas) and Francisco (Vitor Machado) don't just feel the presence of Mary; they straight-up see a giant, glowing lady floating in the sky, talking to them and giving them visions of war and even hell.

Writer-directors Dominic and Ian Higgins obviously approach the material from a strictly religious perspective, but they perhaps inadvertently make a lot about Mary's appearance and the children's reactions intensely creepy and unsettling. The movie's use of black and white images, plus extensive post-dubbing for all of the terrible actors, plus minimalist sets that feature skewed perspectives, all add up to a surreal, often disturbing tone that is at odds with the intended uplifting message. Lucia has dreams of hellfire and demons, rendered in the same vivid color as Mary's appearances, in contrast to the black and white of daily life. Mary's instructions to the children come from a particularly harsh point of view, as she tells them that God will punish the world with another war (as the movie shows images of Nazis) if people don't turn away from godless communism and worship him. Obviously the implication is that humanity failed God, and he went ahead and brought on World War II. Not a very sympathetic deity.

The level of artistry is secondary to the religious message, of course, and The 13th Day is a pretty bad piece of storytelling, presented with almost nonstop narration from an older version of Lucia, writing her memoirs 20 years later when she is living as a nun. The adult characters are basically interchangeable, and anyone who has the slightest doubt about the reality of the apparitions is portrayed as sinister and corrupt (at one point a government official literally threatens to throw the children into a cauldron of boiling oil). The 13th Day isn't designed for anybody but the devout, and however it presents its story, the outcome is predetermined.