If only ‘The Letters’ were as compelling as the life of its subject

Rutger Hauer and Max Von Sydow in 'The Letters'
Rutger Hauer and Max Von Sydow in ‘The Letters’

The Letters is a film about how a cloistered nun serving as a teacher in a convent in India became one of the most famous nuns in the history of the planet.  We know her today as Mother Teresa but she was born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Skopje, which was part of the Ottoman Empire when she was born.  The film begins with her becoming a nun and soon moves forward to 1946 when then Sister Teresa was teaching at a convent school in Calcutta.  This was at the time when the conflict between Hindus and Muslims roiled the entire area.

Sister Teresa heard a calling within a calling from God while aboard a train en route to a retreat at Darjeeling.  She petitioned to be able to leave the convent and go into the slums and work to help the poor.  She shed her habit in favor of a plain white sari with a blue border.  The initial approval for her to do this was for just one year or less, but it was extended and her efforts began to gain notice.  This led to her founding an order, the Missionaries of Charity.  Along the way she received some basic medical training and this enabled her to attempt to feed as well as heal the poor in the slums of Calcutta.

The Letters goes back and forth from telling the story of this part of the life of Mother Teresa and the investigation into whether or not she should be canonized by the Catholic Church.  Father Celeste van Exem (Von Sydow) witnessed a miracle involving Mother Teresa as well as being her spiritual adviser during her life is visited by Father Benjamin Praagh (Hauer) who is the priest conducting the investigation.  Father van Exem tells Father Praagh about letters that Mother Teresa wrote to him over the decades he was her adviser.  In these letters she wrote of many things, including a crisis of faith.

Juliet Stevenson in 'The Letters'
Juliet Stevenson in ‘The Letters’

The miracle that Father van Exem witnesses is ultimately certified and Mother Teresa was beatified.

Clearly the story of this incredible woman’s amazing life is extraordinarily compelling.  It deserved far more than the plodding telling that it receives in The Letters.  Even Job himself would have probably lost patience if he’d sat through the entire one hour and fifty-four minutes of this movie.  It wouldn’t be fair to blame the cast for the weak performances because it is impossible to conceptualize how an actor might overcome dialogue that even a Tarrantino rewrite could not have saved.  The few confrontations between Mother Teresa and those residents of Calcutta who wanted her out of their slums because of their irrational fear that she would attempt to convert their children to Christianity are the few interesting moments in the film.  And they are far too few and far between.  The letters on a Wheel of Fortune puzzle board are far more entertaining than this.

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