Opening across the USA December 4, 2015, The Letters is an inspiring if somewhat pedantic portrayal of the life of Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata. The title of the film refers to the private letters she wrote to her spiritual advisors, published under the title, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.
The Letters writer/director William Riead made the brave choice to attempt to focus on this spiritual darkness that accompanied Blessed Teresa from the time that she began her mission to serve the poorest of the poor. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite succeed in this focus, in part because it’s so difficult to show an interior journey in a film, and also because very few letters are actually quoted.
Publishing the letters was a bit controversial because of two reasons: 1) Blessed Teresa expressed her desire that her letters be destroyed after her death; 2) the extreme spiritual desolation which Blessed Teresa expresses in her letters for over four decades came as a huge surprise to the world and to those who knew her unstinting cheerful and loving service to the poorest of the poor.
Wisely, instead of trying to cover her entire life, the film delves into key moments in the life of Blessed Mother Teresa, moments that many of us might be familiar with:
- Her call to leave the convent of the Sisters of Loretto and begin her mission to serve the poor
- The establishment of the mission in the worst slums of Kolkuta
- The foundation of her new congregation
- Opening the house for the dying
Inspiring and Powerful Portrayal of a Saint
Despite a heavy-handed screenplay that doesn't take advantage of the actual drama of Blessed Teresa’s life, the film is well-produced, with great actors (Juliet Stevenson as Mother, Rutger Hauer as the postulator investigating her cause, Max Von Sydow as her spiritual director), solid cinematography, and a commitment to authenticity that really makes this particular film stand out. (As in any dramatized film based on a true story, the film cannot be entirely factual in detail.) The film’s commitment to authenticity shows in the casting and locations where it was shot, as well as in Juliet Stevenson's powerful performance which includes her physical appearance, and gestures genuinely characteristic of Mother Teresa. Just her accent felt a bit overdone, and it distracted me a bit.
Compared to other films done on Blessed Mother Teresa, The Letters compares quite positively in terms of presenting a much more realistic depiction of the external obstacles she had to overcome to carry out her mission to serve the poor. But the film doesn’t really show how Blessed Teresa overcame these obstacles—instead, in several places it seems that she is quite passive. The real challenge for this film was to carry out the promise of the title: that this film would reveal Blessed Mother Teresa’s interior struggles that she wrote about in her letter. For me, the film really failed to achieve a real portrait of Mother Teresa’s interior life, and it certainly does not communicate well the depth of her letters and the depth of her interior sufferings. Instead, the entire film could be viewed as a teaser—almost a promotion—for interested viewers to pick up her letters and read them for themselves. (You can find them here.)
Some other details in the film that were not so realistic—for example, the cardinals in the Vatican meet with rosaries dangling from their hands!—made me wonder how much some additional research and consultation could have contributed to this biopic.
A Great Way To Begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy
In addition to being the life of a saint, The Letters has a wonderful reflection on Blessed Mother Teresa's life when the postulator for her cause highlights the role of suffering in the life of a follower of Christ. Some pious people, shocked by the honesty and depth of sufferings that Blessed Teresa described, would wonder that she could be named a saint. (Some people still mistakenly say that Blessed Mother Teresa shares the doubts of an atheist!) Didn’t her experience of the absence of God mean that her faith was not true, or at least it was shaken with doubt? Not at all, the postulator explains. Rather, the very darkness that she underwent—while she was utterly faithful to her mission and carried it out with great love and serenity—is the strongest testimony possible for her canonization.
Having a special devotion to Blessed Mother Teresa, I feel that any film that attempts to faithfully tell her life is a gift. And even though The Letters might fail in delivering on the promise of its title, it is still a moving and powerful portrayal of the life of one of the greatest saints of the twentieth century--a woman who truly lived the spirit of mercy. Going to the theaters and watching her life this weekend would make a great start to living the Jubilee Year of Mercy!
For more information about the film, visit: www.TheLettersMovie.com
For a dicussion guide about the film, visit: http://www.theletterspublicity.com/
For a variety of perspectives on the film, visit: http://www.patheos.com/Entertainment/Movie-Club/The-Letters
Here a few favorite themes to ponder after seeing The Letters
Blessed Teresa responds to a “call within a call” while remaining obedient to the authority of the Church.
- The freedom and power in each of us to respond to God’s call.
Blessed Teresa insisted that starting her mission to serve the poor was her free choice—even though it was a response to God’s call and caused her endless hard and tedious tasks, great suffering, misunderstanding, and loneliness.
Note how Blessed Teresa describes her mission as “God’s work,” and tells journalists to interview the poor—that is where the real story is!
The Letters shows a little of Blessed Mother Teresa’s developing relationships with two of her students, who eventually joined her and became the first Missionaries of Charity. These relationships reveal a loving mother who shared some of the reasons for her joys and suffering, but who did not burden these young sisters with her spiritual desolation. These scenes hint at the warmth, inner beauty and strength of Blessed Teresa, and why she was so loved by those who knew her.