By Edward N Brown (Cleveland, OH, USA)
Unfortunately, it appears that Hollywood and the Entertainment Industry have decided to marginalize another superb movie. It’s only playing at a few theaters, and even then mostly in the morning (why is that?). There were only 4 people in the theater when I saw it, probably because of mixed reviews and the fact that very little promotion has been done. You might have to look hard, or travel far, to find an afternoon or evening showing of The Letters. But, believe me, it’s worth it.
The movie is a fresh look at the life of Mother Teresa, revealing her inner conflicts of loneliness and fear that God had forsaken her, amid her outward compassion, charity, and love for the poorest of the poor in Calcutta India. It’s meant to counter the recent rash of critics (most of whom are atheists or anti-Christian secularists) that claim she fraudulently transferred gift money from disreputable individuals around the world into secret accounts, and did not directly hand it out to the poor (the context of which can be scrutinized in any way particular to any individual’s own personal philosophy). Indeed, the reviews of this movie are very polarized. I read 10 reviews beforehand. 5 reviewers (from organizations less than friendly to the Catholic Church) panned it unmercifully. The other 5 reviewers (from organizations friendly to the Catholic Church) applauded it triumphantly. I think your personal worldview will bias how you view and react to this movie.
Granted, it’s not done in the typical Hollywood style – some character development is shallow and there are no action-packed car chases or violent scenes. But it’s a docu-drama – meant to capture the day-to-day reality of what she felt called to do – not a tinseltown posterboard. And as such, it hits the mark. I thought Juliet Stevenson was excellent – it was evident that she had studied the character and really tried to portray the person in her entirety; not over-dramatized or sensationalized; just the most probable representation of Mother Teresa’s daily grind in her chosen life. Max von Sydow was good as the Receiver of the Letters. Rutger Hauer was poor as the Vatican investigator looking into her cause for canonization. The supporting Indian actors and actresses were exceptional.
The individual street scenes are very strong, emotional, and memorable – a number of scenes in which the Hindu locals protest her presence in their slum. Two scenes are very memorable. One in which a local Hindu man who had previously angrily chastised her, prostrates himself and kisses her feet after she single-handedly, and humbly, prevents his wife’s miscarriage and saves the life of their new-born infant (to a woman who was one of her worst criticizers). The other memorable scene was when a dying man, lying on the floor in her makeshift care center, with his last few breaths manages to utter words of thanks for being with him at the end, but says (almost apologetically) that he is a Hindu. Just before he leaves this world she says to him “I understand, but when I look at you, I see Jesus”. Very powerful scenes!
Born Agnes Bojaxhiu on Aug. 26, 1910, in the Macedonia region of Albania, she left home at the age of 18 to become a nun (she was always fascinated with missionaries). Although she lived to be 87, she never saw her mother or sister again after the day she left home (which grieved her terribly). She received many prestigious awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 (she requested that the traditional banquet monies be given to help the poor of India). She graciously accepted these awards, even though she didn’t want the recognition herself, because she thought that the worldwide recognition would help get more attention and intervention into addressing the needs of the poor. She was beatified in 2003 and her official title is now Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
Some people have compared this film to the 2003 film Mother Teresa of Calcutta starring Olivia Hussey, and reckoned that it doesn’t measure up. I would disagree. That film was done in the Hollywood style with a glamorous actress, following the tried-and-true formula of how to entertain American movie-goers. This film was not. This is more a straight docu-drama; it follows the actual occurrences accurately, which is why I liked it.
I would give the movie between 4 and 5 stars. But, in the end, it’s not about the aggrandizement of the acting or the film fraternity. It’s about how we all deal with the non-divine lot of our fallen human condition. It’s a very emotional movie; a real tear-jerker – bring Kleenex. How could it be otherwise?
At the end of the movie, a text overlay points out a remarkable fact. Although almost all Catholic ministries around the world have declined in numbers over the last 50 years, the Missionaries of Charity, the congregation that she founded in India with 12 supporters (and, by the way, there are many vocal detractors to it out there), has continued to grow every year, and a number of affiliated branches have started up. At the time of Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity numbered 3,914 members, and were established in 594 communities in 123 countries. The order has now grown to over 4,000 members in 697 foundations in 131 countries of the world.
Something is at work here.