A Dark Vocation.
A Review of
The Letters: The Untold Story of Mother Teresa
A film by William Riead, written and directed by William Riead.
115 minutes. Rated PG.
Opens in Theatres Dec 4.
Reviewed by Jon M. Sweeney
The title of this film, in theaters on December 4, comes from the revelation eight years ago of Mother Teresa’s “dark” letters. The world was shocked when the book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light appeared, and discovered that she’d lived and worked among the poorest of the poor for a half century feeling much of the time as if God had abandoned her. Reading those letters, some thought they reflected negatively on her work, as if she were a hypocrite for talking to people of God’s love and care while harboring doubts as to God’s presence in her own life. Others thought she was suddenly more human, as well as more saintly, for persevering in spite of feeling spiritually empty and alone. The screenplay of the film allows the “dark” letters to tell her story.
Max von Sydow’s character, the Belgian Jesuit, Father Celeste van Exem, friend and confessor to the great Albanian nun, narrates what is going on inside of her throughout the story. He explains the letters and guides us through her life, beginning when Sister Teresa first discerned her call (or “call within a call”) to the poor in the slums of Calcutta in 1946, with India on the cusp of independence from Great Britain. Hindus and Muslims were killing each other, frightened, and often starving, and Teresa could no longer stand staying behind convent walls teaching privileged girls geography and physical science. I usually think of von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), playing a knight returned from the crusades playing chess with Death. He was also Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told and Father Merrin in The Exorcist. I remember him in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, making fun of television preachers, ranting, “If Jesus came back, and heard what was being said in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.” He’s 86 years old, now, and will also be in the new Star Wars film opening next month. He’ll be the Three-eyed Raven in Season 6 of Game of Thrones next year. The current issue of The Atlantic calls him “The Greatest Actor Alive.” He brings world attention to this film.
The British-born Juliet Stevenson plays Sister/Mother Teresa. Her previous films include Mona Lisa Smile and Bend It Like Beckham and you probably wouldn’t recognize her if you passed her on the street. She also does not sparkle in the role, but perhaps that is best. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if the casting wisdom included avoiding an actress who might over-shine. The story is the real star, here, and we watch eagerly as Sister Teresa applies for exclaustration (permission to live outside the convent for a time), and ultimately receives it directly from Pope Pius XII. She leaves the cloister with only five rupees in her pocket, the equivalent of a single dollar.
She begins her work in the slums with a passionate heart but a queasy stomach when looking at the sores of the sick in the hospital where she trains. Like Francis of Assisi, she had to overcome a natural repulsion to leprosy before she could see the leper. Other scenes may also surprise you, as they did me, including those that show how suspiciously she was viewed at first. Her mother general in Calcutta also never supported her work, and discouraged the first girls from the convent school who wanted to join Teresa in working among the Untouchables. Amid all of this, those letters of doubt and darkness recur throughout the film, and sometimes we hear portions of them as Teresa prays to God. We also hear how she’d asked Father van Exem to destroy the letters that they exchanged over a fifty-year period, but he simply couldn’t.
Whether or not it matters to you that she will likely be canonized next year in September by Pope Francis, see this movie about an extraordinary life. The cinematography in The Letters is beautiful. Filming took place mostly in Goa, Delhi, Calcutta, and Mumbai. The direction (William Riead), locations, costuming, even the understated score, are just right. Hundreds of actors, most of them professionals from India’s Bollywood, fill the cast and play their roles with evident passion. By the end, it is clear that the darkness Mother Teresa endured was essential to her vocation.
Jon M. Sweeney lives in Vermont, is the editorial director at Franciscan Media, and the author of The Complete Francis of Assisi, When Saint Francis Saved the Church, Inventing Hell, and The Pope Who Quit, recently optioned by HBO.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com