For this Portugese character actor, ‘Fatima’ feels like home

Joaquim de Almeida and Stephanie Gil star in a scene from the movie "Fatima." (CNS photo/Claudio Iannone, Picturehouse) 

Like every child in Lisbon, Portugal, Joaquim de Almeida grew up knowing “the story of Fatima.” 

In 1917, that small Portugese village became the site of a historic religious event when three shepherd children saw the Virgin Mary in a series of apparitions. As word spread, Fatima quickly turned into an unlikely pilgrimage site, attracting thousands of faithful visitors. 

Known for playing Latin American villains, Jose de Almeida plays a priest in ‘Fatima’ and a cardinal in ‘Warrior Nun.’

“It was something we learned in school, something we learned from parents,” Mr. de Almeida recalled in an interview with America. “If you’re a believer or non-believer, Fatima is always told.” More than five decades since first learning about its significance, and even though he does not think of himself as religious, he remains connected to the miraculous story. 

In “Fatima,” director Marco Pontecorvo’s latest film, the 63-year-old actor portrays Father Ferreira, a local parish priest initially dubious about the young trio’s testimony. Over the course of the children’s recurring visitations, his heart changes; he is moved by their insistence and becomes an ally when the government presses them to recant their stories. 

“I think he’s faced with something—the kids don’t give up,” Mr. de Almeida said of Father Ferreira. “At a certain point he starts believing. I think he becomes very supportive.” 

It’s a complicated role, which reflects the church’s position in the midst of Portugal’s democratic revolution.

It’s a complicated role, which reflects the church’s position in the midst of Portugal’s democratic revolution. It was this complexity that attracted Mr. de Almeida to the project. 

“We were playing characters that existed,” he said. “The church was not interested in [these visions] at the moment; they weren’t keen to have more trouble with the republic.”

Wearing religious robes isn’t new territory for Mr. de Almeida. A prolific movie and television actor, who made his on-screen debut in 1979, he has played a variety of religious leaders and advisers over his 40-year career. Though his most notable Hollywood roles in film—from “Clear and Present Danger” to “Fast Five”—have been Latin American villains, Mr. de Almeida has continued to pursue smaller projects that often require fastening the collar. 

Wearing religious robes isn’t new territory for Mr. de Almeida.

Most recently, that has included the hit Netflix series “Warrior Nun,” in which he plays Cardinal Duretti, a mysterious figurehead with cloaked motivations. “I’m not a religious person,” Mr. de Almeida said, but noted that he is willing to take on these roles “[as long as] it’s an interesting character.”

Although his mother was religious, Mr. de Almeida took more cues from his father, who saw the church, and specifically the Fatima miracle, through a more cynical, commercial prism. One of eight children, Mr. de Almeida stopped attending Mass once he turned 10 and channeled his devotion to the arts, eventually studying theater in Lisbon for two years. 

Mr. de Almeida took cues from his father, who saw the Fatima miracle through a more cynical, commercial prism.

When the country’s military uprising in 1974 interrupted his education, Mr. de Almeida moved to Vienna, then to New York, continuing his studies and beginning his on-camera career. Fluent in six languages, Mr. de Almeida has landed roles playing characters from across the globe, helping his ascent into the mainstream. “I happen to be offered a lot of bad guys, drug dealers and a lot of religious people,” he chuckles about his four-decade career.

Despite his loose ties to religion, Mr. de Almeida remains fascinated by those who find comfort and guidance from visiting his country’s holy site 103 years after the events that occurred there. “In Portugal, I have a lot of friends that are not particularly religious, but they walk every year to Fatima, because they pray to the Virgin,” he said. “Some people, without religion, they feel they might lose their direction in life, and life is not easy.” 

When reading letters from the first Fatima worshipers, Mr. de Almeida was taken by their descriptions of the “Miracle of the Sun,” a drastic weather event that produced unusual solar activity. To many believers, it fulfilled one of the Marian prophecies, and the actor felt compelled to visit the village himself. While he acknowledges “something for sure happened that day...it’s understandable that some people are reticent about it because it became such a big business.”

Mistrust in religious bodies is also a theme in “Warrior Nun,” which Netflix has renewed for a second season.

Mistrust in religious bodies is also a theme in “Warrior Nun,” which Netflix has renewed for a second season. The fantasy series, about a special order of nuns trained to expel demons, operates as a coming-of-age saga, but it also criticizes the church, which it presents as an institution more concerned with its tradition and reputation than with the community it represents. As Cardinal Duretti, Mr. de Almeida personifies that vision of the church, focusing primarily on his individual power and keeping his ministerial cards close to the vest. 

“We have religious leaders that are very influential in their politics and that influence their followers where to vote,” Mr. de Almeida said. “Like everything in life, there’s good and there’s bad.”

On the set of “Warrior Nun,” the show’s young female actors, including the star Alba Baptista (who also makes a brief appearance in “Fatima”), have enjoyed his presence and asked the veteran actor for guidance. Mr. de Almeida remembers looking to Michael Caine not long ago (by which he means 30-plus years) for advice on the set of “The Honorary Consul.” Now his role has flipped. “They come up to me, some of the nuns—they want to take pictures,” he said. “You’ve been around, you were acting when they were born.” 

As he reflected further on his summer playing religious figures, Mr. de Almeida laughed and revealed that he just recently signed on to play another priest for an upcoming project. Though he hasn’t practiced much faith on his own, there have been moments, he believes, that have helped him access the spiritual plane on which many of his characters exist. 

One of those, he remembers, occurred in Rome in 1994 while shooting the romantic comedy “Only You.” He had just been offered a role for “Clear and Present Danger,” starring Harrison Ford, and he stepped into a nearby cathedral to process the news. Inside the quiet, dark space, he absorbed its stillness and prayed. His surrender has stayed with him to this day.

“I remember it felt good to be there, sitting there in that coolness, thinking about an almighty being,” he said. “I think I understand why people have a certain connection with God, because when you are in the church, there is that feeling—it’s important.”

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