Movie Review: “The Letters”

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Mother Teresa was still just Sister Teresa, a Catholic school teacher and head mistress in Calcutta, when she took on her “call within a calling.”

She resolved to stop teaching girls from privileged families and teach the poorest of the poor, India’s “untouchables,” instead. She learned to nurse and took care of the sick and served as a midwife. And when she finally saw one man left to die on the street too many, she founded a hospice, took the dying in and cared for them.

A Nobel Peace Prize was certainly deserved. That she is halfway to sainthood in the eyes of the Vatican should be no surprise.

But that also means she’ll probably never earn a sober-minded film biography, a movie that doesn’t cast her in halo light. Because it’s not just conservative India, which was shamed by the cultural inequities and callous home-grown religions that did not address the problems she pointed out, that is sharply critical of her. She founded a laughably inefficient charitable foundation, cozied up to dictators and was seriously doctrinaire in her attitudes toward birth control, abortion and the nature of suffering.

Even a film hagiography like “The Letters”, about her years of questioning her faith, cannot quite force itself to frankly depict her uncertainty. It’s just another shrine on the pilgrimage to her sainthood.

The wonderful British character actress Juliet Stevenson (“Bend it Like Beckham”) plays the Macedonian Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhi, who became a nun in Dublin, moved to India and experienced her second conversion there.

Veteran TV documentary maker William Riead, who built a career in “The Making Of” films — movies about the making of this or that feature film — tells Mother Teresa’s story in flashback.

The priest in charge of researching the first “miracle” associated with Mother Teresa — a cancer cure a woman credits to a photo of  Teresa — is played by Rutger Hauer. “We have to be certain,” his Vatican bosses tell him.

That puts the Great Rutger Hauer in the position of simply sitting and listening to the one priest who knew the late Mother way back when. The Great Max Von Sydow is that priest, Celeste van Exem. He is the one who tells the story of Mother Teresa, and relates lines from her letters of “doubt.”

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“The Letters” bogs down in the years it took the church to give the woman permission to leave her “cloistered” status as teacher and go out among the poor. The Indian backlash at this “Christian woman” caring for their poor. She was trying to convert them, they claimed, which she denied. But it is also alleged that she baptized the dying in her hospice.

The film is riddled with repetitive dialogue and eye-rolling moments, which a pro like Stevenson manages to deliver without rolling her eyes. But her portrayal is consistently selfless and often moving, even as she is eagerly avoiding publicity for herself.

“I am just a pencil in God’s hand.”

Riead had a very good cast and plenty of authentic settings. But he never had a poetic script. Merely addressing the controversies (outside of India) that follow the woman would have lent credibility to this enterprise. He avoids that.

And in doing so, he creates a movie that won’t convert anyone, a film for the faithful who want to believe nothing but the best about Mother Teresa. Real life is rarely cut and dry, and dramatically flat, as this.

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MPAA Rating:PG for thematic material including some images of human suffering

Cast: Juliet Stevenson, Max Von Sydow, Rutger Hauer
Credits: Written and directed by William Riead. A release.

Running time: 1:54

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