Film Review: The Letters

A Mother Teresa hagiography that will speak to faith-based audiences but may feel one-dimensional and/or alien to the religiously uninitiated.
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Tackling a religious figure onscreen is a daunting challenge, and writer-director William Riead (Island Prey, Change of Heart) had his work cut out for him with The Letters, exploring the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Juliet Stevenson), the iconic humanitarian who chose to serve the downtrodden residents in the most impoverished slums of Calcutta from 1948 until her death in 1997. Mother Teresa ultimately won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and six years after her death she was beatified as “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta,” the first step towards canonization.

Today, Missionaries of Charity, the international aid organization she founded in 1950, boasts close to 5,000 religious sisters and is active in almost 300 countries. Its mission continues to be service to the poorest of the poor.

Mother Teresa was clearly a remarkable figure—and also a complex and controversial missionary who struggled with a crisis of faith throughout much of her life, though these feelings were only revealed in letters she wrote to her spiritual advisor, Father Celeste van Exem (played by the always formidable Max von Sydow), which he in turn sent to the Vatican in an effort to encourage her canonization. Some of the letters were published in the 2007 book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.

The film is bookended and interspersed with scenes centering on van Exem discussing these letters—and by extension Mother Teresa’s life, spiritual journey and personal holiness—with a Vatican priest (Rutger Hauer).

Riead underscores her saintliness—she refers to herself as “a pencil in God’s hand”—and unequivocal courage as she battles the community, her order, and ultimately the Vatican itself. Receiving the Vatican’s permission to leave her order was a major ordeal and took her years to achieve.

But she persists while tending the terminally ill, sharing what little food she has with the starving, and educating illiterate youngsters against a backdrop of angry Hindus who view her as an intrusive interloper—exploiting their plight—to preach the Gospel and convert the residents to Catholicism, despite her adamant claims to the contrary.

In one of the more striking scenes—that is, depending on your viewpoint, moving or emetic—she arrives in the nick of time to deliver a breach baby (thus saving its life) to a Hindu couple who had been previously abusive to her. As she strides away from the difficult birth, awash in blood, the husband runs after her, hurling himself at her feet, thanking her and begging for forgiveness.

Much of the story is set in the late 1940s during the period of independence and partition in India, when political and religious crisis was at its height. Nothing was simple, but in this film the Hindus emerge as buffoonish thugs in stark contrast to the pious Mother Teresa, most pointedly when she transfigures an abandoned Hindu Temple into a hospice. She has done so without anyone’s permission and the enraged Hindus stomp and holler and protest. They are far more concerned with the lack of protocol than the needs of the dying.

Mother Teresa may have indeed embodied a more advanced compassionate sensibility, though that view of her has been challenged by a number of writers and journalists—the late Christopher Hitchens the best known—who suggest her treatment of these tormented patients at the end of their lives was often ignorant and inconsistent. Instead of administering pain-relief medication, they say, she busied herself saving their heathen souls. The critics also talk about questionable financial dealings she was allegedly engaged in, and some even assert she suffered from a psycho-pathological fascination with poverty, wallowing in it.

These charges are perhaps reductive, but the movie would surely have been more interesting if Mother Teresa were not quite as one-dimensionally holy. Admittedly, her letters indicate her inner struggles, though somehow that is not conveyed in a dramatically compelling way.

It’s not Stevenson’s fault. In fact, she brings added layers to the flat material. Her body language—leaning forward from the waist and striding purposefully—evokes a woman on a determined mission against all odds. She is at once innocent and keenly knowing. Her tomboyish quality also works well.

Still, in the end the problem may be the topic. It’s almost impossible to put an emotional handle on a character like Mother Teresa—or, for that matter, her wealthy female acolytes who wanted to give up their lives to follow in her footsteps—except perhaps for faith-based moviegoers.

Interestingly, Riead said he was not creating a film for faith-based audiences. In my July 2014 FJI story—dealing with the plethora of religious themed films—he said his impulse to do a movie about Mother Teresa was humanitarian, at least when he launched the project 14 years ago in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

He was determined to create an epic film that demonstrated the polar opposite of evil, and who better than Mother Teresa? In the end, the research, writing and shooting of the film transformed him. At the time of the interview Riead said he had not taken one dime in salary, adding that whatever monies were to be earned, 50% was earmarked for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

“I am certainly more spiritual than I was,” he reported. “When I wake up I say, ‘Good morning, God. I’m your humble employee. What do you want me to do today?’  Whatever credit the film gets belongs to God. I didn’t make the film. God did. I thank God for guiding me. I’m as amazed at the film as anyone else. I’m humbled by it. I hope the Old Man is happy, and when I get to the other side I hope God high-fives me and says, ‘Well done!’"

The critics may be more ambivalent in their assessments.

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