CGB Review of The Letters (2014)

“I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God.”
–Saint Teresa of Calcutta

This is my review of The Letters!

The Letters movie

After receiving her “call within a call” on a train to Darjeeling, Sister Teresa of the Loreto convent begins her mission to serve the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta.  As her movement expands, students from the school where she was the principal join her in her work and eventually the Missionaries of Charity is born.  The world would soon come to know this little nun dressed in a white and blue sari as Mother Teresa.  In the midst of her accomplishments, Mother Teresa suffered six decades of spiritual desolation and the idea that God had abandoned her haunted her.  Despite the spiritual darkness, she continued to serve the One she loved.
I have loved Mother Teresa for as long as I can remember.  Actually, the next CGB editorial will be about Mother Teresa, as was my last editorial “Frightening Hour, Glorious Day.”  I wanted to see this movie on my 24th birthday, but unfortunately, it wasn’t playing in either of my local movie theaters.  So imagine my suprise when I was told that this movie was on Netflix. 🙂

The Hits
Juliet Stevenson–good Lord–she NAILS it as Mother Teresa.  She looks like Mother Teresa, her accent is pitch perfect, she gets the posture right; I truly felt like I was watching Mother Teresa herself.  Juliet Stevenson’s portrayal of Mother Teresa is very respectful, bringing both a tenderness and an iron will to the character.  Stevenson also brings a charisma to Mother Teresa, which explains how the character is able to draw so many people to her cause.  Also kudos to the filmmakers for emphasizing on Mama T’s humility by showing her tell a reporter who wants to interview her,  “I am but a pencil in the hand of God,” and then later,”If you want to write a story, look outside; the poor are everywhere!”  Classic Mother Teresa.  ^_^
I really appreciate an earlier scene where then-Sister Teresa, who starts off teaching at a convent school for privileged girls, sees a hungry family outside her window and brings a basket of fruits and vegetables to them.  This establishes her giving nature and heart for those in need, so when she is called by Jesus to leave the convent and go to the Calcutta slums, her quick acceptance of the “call within the call” is in-character and believable. From then on, this trait continues to be demonstrated via scenes of her teaching village children the alphabet and assisting in the delivery of a newborn whose parents opposed her missionary work.
During Mother Teresa’s ministry, India had just gained its independence.  The impact of this cultural change is mostly kept in the background, but is felt with hostile encounters with some of the locals and, in that scene I mentioned where Mama T gives food to the hungry family, a Hindu man tells her that a Catholic nun shouldn’t be roaming outside where she could get killed by protestors.  Speaking of which, one interesting thing I noticed is how the movie portrays the patriarchal culture of Calcutta.  In the few scenes where Mother Teresa must deal with suspicious villagers, she cannot get a word in until a man comes to her defense.  This is especially apparent when The Home for the Dying is attacked by Hindu protestors and all Mother Teresa and two other nun characters can do is stand there until three men intervene.  It shows that in their culture, women are silenced in the presence of men. The movie doesn’t try to make a feminist statement with this, but rather lets it be so that we, the audience, can come to that conclusion for ourselves. The Letters focuses its efforts on being a commendable character study of the small nun who would rock the boat of our materialistic society with her acts of compassion and humility.

The Misses
I advise against watching this movie on your tablet unless you have earplugs.  The dialogue can be hard to hear at times, to the point where turning the volume up more than once is recommended.
The movie is on a roll up until the third act.  After Mama T establishes the Missionaries of Charity, the film seems to just fast-forward to her Noble Peace Prize speech, which…well, they kind of botch.   It’s too short and all of her words about abortion (which are the best parts of her Nobel Peace Prize speech, by the way) are cut out entirely.
Regarding the spiritual darkness, I don’t think the movie conveys this very well.  I totally understand that Mother Teresa herself never spoke of it except in her letters to her spiritual director Father Celeste van Exem, but one scene of her just saying quietly, “Where are You, my Jesus?” or something like that would’ve solved this problem right away.  Unfortunately her dark night of the soul is only spoken of by other characters and not shown to us.  I’m sorry, guys, but shots of her walking silently by herself with a weary expression on her face isn’t gonna cut it.

The Letters serves as a good introduction to Mother Teresa and her missionary spirit. Despite some questionable story choices in the third act, Juliet Stevenson’s dedicated performance alone is a wonderful homage to the “saint of the darkness” and makes up for the film’s few hiccups.  In terms of being a cinematic in-memorium of a triumphant life, The Letters is definitely worth the watch.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.

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