The commitment by Mother Teresa to care for those who had been rejected by society is one of the most unparalleled displays of benevolence of the 20th century. The tiny woman showed the world through her actions the truest meaning of charity.
The Letters, a new film from writer-director William Riead, reveals that even the woman whose grace, compassion and work earned her consideration for canonization by the Roman Catholic Church had her doubts. Concerns about the loneliness and darkness she felt in her life plus an abandonment by God were only revealed through a series of letters written to her spiritual adviser, Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow).
Riead has elected to tell the story from the point of view of Benjamin Praagh (Rutger Hauer), a Vatican priest charged with investigating acts and events following her death that would determine whether Mother Teresa should be canonized. This is the movie’s biggest mistake.
The story unfolds as Sister Teresa (Juliet Stevenson) hears a calling from God to leave the convent in Eastern Calcutta, India, where she has been serving as a teacher, to work in the streets. She’s not concerned with evangelizing but rather with offering care and comfort to the masses who are starving, sick or dying.
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Despite her pure humanitarian reasons for wanting to work among the poor, the Vatican had to be convinced to change its rules. She eventually establishes her own congregation, whose work is so world-changing that it earns Mother Teresa the Nobel Peace Prize.
The task of playing Mother Teresa falls to Stevenson, a noted British actor. It’s a remarkable performance worthy of Oscar consideration considering how controlled the work had to be within the confines of Riead’s script.
Mother Teresa was not prone to big displays of either joy or frustration, but Stevenson still manages to show the frustration and emotional burden that weighed heavily on the nun’s shoulders. It was a burden she almost exclusively carried alone.
There would have been more emotional avenues for her to play had Riead opted to spend less time making a biopic on the life of Mother Teresa and more on revealing the contents of the letters.
This is a powerful part of Mother Teresa’s life, but the way Riead has written the script and shot the film plays it too safely. Stevenson takes the material Riead gives her and plays the role with the respect and energy it needs and deserves.
She could have done so much more had the material been there.
But there are plenty of memorable scenes, from the anguish she feels despite her heroic efforts with a pregnant woman and with the motherly advice she gives the young students who are inspired to follow her lead.
Seeing Mother Teresa express her dark fears would have been more powerful than a room full of men sitting around pontificating about what she wrote. Even good actors like von Sydow and Hauer can only do so much.
Even with the technical glitches, The Letters is a loving and powerful tribute to what can be done when a person doesn’t just profess to have a deep faith but takes action to show it. The fact that this saintly woman has some very common doubts and concerns only shows how dedicated Mother Teresa was to taking care of the homeless and helpless.
Mother Teresa’s life was so inspiring that even a film that tells her story at only about 75 percent of its potential still delivers a heavy spiritual punch.
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(out of five)
Director: William Riead
Cast: Juliet Stevenson, Rutger Hauer, Max von Sydow
Rated: PG (thematic material)
Running time: 114 min.