The Letters, rated PG
I was motivated to see this film after reading the mini-biography of Mother Teresa in Eric Metaxas’ fine new book 7 Women. Here’s what I wrote about Mother Teresa in my review:
“Mother Teresa of Calcutta was born 1910. Her father died early. When she was 12 she felt God was calling her to a religious life. She left home at age 18, never to see her mother again. She took a vow of chastity, poverty and obedience in 1937. She then felt God’s call to leave the convent and live among the poor in Calcutta, where she would form the Missionaries of Charity Order. At the time of her death, there were more than 4,000 nuns in the order, along with others in related organizations she founded. Metaxas writes of her boldly speaking against the evils of abortion when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., in front of the noticeably uncomfortable Clintons and Gores.”
This film is titled The Letters in reference to some six thousand letters of Mother Teresa, (portrayed here by Juliet Stevenson), that came to the attention of the Vatican as they were working on the process toward her sainthood. But these weren’t just any letters. These letters reflected her loneliness and feeling of being abandoned by God. These were letters that Teresa had wanted destroyed after she died. They were never intended to be made public.
As a result of the letters found, a Vatican priest, Father Benjamin Praagh, (portrayed by Golden Globe winner Rutger Hauer), is sent to see Father Celeste van Exem (portrayed by two-time Oscar nominee Max Von Sydow) who had been Mother Teresa’s spiritual advisor for many years. Father van Exem narrates the film and Teresa’s story by using the letters she wrote him over several decades.
We meet Teresa as a nun and teacher in Calcutta’s Loreto Convent, where she teaches young privileged girls, who absolutely adore her. Teresa is not allowed to go outside the walls of the convent, but she can see terrible suffering (poverty and hunger) through her window. While on a train ride, Teresa hears clearly, though not audibly, the voice of God giving her a call within her vocation of being a nun. That call is to serve the poor of Calcutta.
But the Mother General (Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal) of the convent tells Teresa that her idea is foolishness. However, Teresa, believing that she has been called by God, seeks the Pope’s blessing of this call, which she receives initially for a one-year period.
Some of Calcutta’s Hindus do not initially welcome Teresa, believing she is only there to convert them to her Christian God. But we never see Teresa talk to them about God or Jesus. Instead she demonstrates Christian love through her actions, something we can all learn from. Eventually, Teresa petitions the Vatican to recognize her work as a separate congregation, which they do, establishing the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity, with Teresa becoming Mother Teresa.
Most of the film is a flash-back to the early years of Teresa’s ministry with occasional scenes showing Father Celeste van Exem telling Teresa’s story to Father Benjamin Praagh. While we see a few instances of Teresa writing the letters that van Exem tells Praagh speak to her emptiness, abandonment and darkness, that is about it as far as how much the letters influence the film. I did not see Stevenson’s Mother Teresa reflect the emptiness, abandonment or darkness. In contrast, she is seen cheerfully serving the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, living out the “calling within a call” she received from God on the train.
Later, we see Mother Teresa accepting the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, where she prays the famous prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. You can watch the real Mother Teresa’s speech here. The prayer she recites is:
“Lord, make me a channel of Thy peace that, where there is hatred, I may bring love; that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness; that, where there is discord, I may bring harmony; that, where there is error, I may bring truth; that, where there is doubt, I may bring faith; that, where there is despair, I may bring hope; that, where there are shadows, I may bring light; that, where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted, to understand than to be understood; to love than to be loved; for it is by forgetting self that one finds; it is forgiving that one is forgiven; it is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.”
The acting performances here are solid, and the film “looks” better than most faith based films. However, it is dreadfully slow (especially the early parts of the film, where it almost grinds to a halt). However, I’m glad I saw the film to find out more of Teresa’s amazing story.
You can visit the film’s official site here.