“The Letters”: worth seeing – but read the book

Somewhere between James Bond and a galaxy far far away, there are other films in release. Don’t overlook The Letters, based on the lengthy correspondence between Mother Teresa and her spiritual advisor. Few accounts of the now-beatified nun convey the extent of her very human day-to-day struggles, internal as well as external, as the founder of the Missionaries of Charity. Those struggles are at the heart of the correspondence that inspired the screenplay by William Riead (who also directed the film).Mother Teresa book and ticket

The private letters, which were unknown to Mother Teresa’s fellow nuns, would have been destroyed if her wishes had been followed. Instead, they were retained by her spiritual director, Father Celeste van Exem, who no doubt realized that the letters would be relevant testimony in any proceedings for beatification or canonization. Also, as the actor portraying him says in the film, van Exem knew that people experiencing spiritual discouragement could take heart if they knew that even Mother Teresa had had such crises.

The Letters is a quiet film, not flashy or sensational, and for that reason alone might be worth a couple of your Advent hours.  It’s a quick sketch rather than an in-depth story, and a fictionalized account rather than a documentary. Within those limits, I considered my two hours at the theater well spent, if not entirely satisfactory. There’s much more to the story than the quick sketch Riead affords us – but with much of Mother Teresa’s correspondence now publicly accessible, Riead’s sketch could be an invitation to deeper study.

“It’s God’s will – not mine – I will trust in God.” That was Teresa’s response to objections as she responded to the “call within a call” that took her from being a respected teacher with the Sisters of Loreto to being a servant of India’s poorest people.  As she offered profound charity in the slums and as more women joined her ministry (later the Missionaries of Charity), she was burdened by a sense that God had abandoned her.  One is left to wonder how the poor of Calcutta would have fared had Mother Teresa chosen to work with a less encouraging and discerning spiritual advisor.

Beautifully filmed, with very effective understated music up until the jarring tune over the closing credits, The Letters benefits from elegant production and good casting. Juliet Stevenson as Sister (later Mother) Teresa ages decades over the course of the story not by obvious makeup but by posture, bearing, and tone of voice. She expresses an ongoing dark night of the soul without resorting to caricature. Her spiritual advisor, Fr. van Exem, is played in a kindly yet authoritative manner by Max von Sydow, whose rich voice narrates parts of the story. (Van Exem in his younger days is portrayed by Aapo Pukk, whose resemblance to von Sydow is uncanny.) Rutger Hauer gets third billing but has relatively little screen time as  the priest responsible for investigating the case for sainthood.

Notable in supporting roles – roles actually far more substantial than those afforded to von Sydow and Hauer – are Tillatoma Shome and Vijay Maurya as a Hindu wife and husband deeply suspicious of Mother Teresa and her work.

There are drawbacks to a screenplay that tries to cover half a century in two hours. Some characters, notably the leader of the religious community Mother Teresa left in order to found the Missionaries of Charity, are two-dimensional.  So are some of the scenes. I kept wishing for more material from the letters themselves.

Don’t go looking for any mention of Mother Teresa’s opposition to abortion, which in her Nobel lecture she called “the greatest destroyer of peace in the world today.” Such details fall to the quick-sketch nature of the screenplay.

Director Riead spent over a decade bringing The Letters to the screen, and he obviously has great respect for his subject. It would be something to see if he were to give Mother Teresa’s correspondence the documentary treatment it deserves.

As it is, I left the theater wanting more. Fortunately, more is available. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday, 2007) is a collection of the nun’s letters, edited by a priest of the Missionaries of Charity. In that volume, the sketch of Mother Teresa becomes a portrait.

The Letters offers a glimpse into the inner life of one of the most influential women of our era, framed by a director who treats his subject with respect. For more than a glimpse, read Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. 



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