Saturday movie review: The Letters

I can't imagine there's an adult out there who doesn't know Mother Teresa, the inimitable humanitarian and recipient of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize for her endless charitable work caring for, comforting, and loving the sick and poor. Regardless of one's faith (or absence of), Mother Teresa — full name Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, MC — is universally admired for her compassion and kindness, particularly for the underprivileged.

Many folks know Mother Teresa was a Roman Catholic nun and missionary who founded the Missionaries of Charity, a religious congregation that caters to the poor in more than 133 countries. Many may also know that after multiple illnesses, Mother Teresa died in 1997 and that soon after her death, the process of beatification and canonization began to have her named as a saint.

The Letters film

THE LETTERS, a compelling drama about Mother Teresa's life, is based on documents discovered during the lengthy process of accumulation information and events to support appointing Mother Teresa to sainthood. The letters for which the film is named are letters Mother Teresa wrote to her friend and spiritual advisor throughout her entire career. Letters she requested be destroyed as she feared they might take the focus off Jesus and the works of God, but letters that ultimately served to support the quest for naming her a saint. The letters, revealed little by little throughout the film, reveal a Mother Teresa few (if any) imagined existed. Her personal letters tell the depths of her loneliness and sincere career-long concerns she had been abandoned by God — all while publicly expressing unmatched warmth, grace, compassion for those suffering, first in Calcutta then throughout the world. Never complaining, never tiring, never giving up on being there for those who needed food, care, love.

Juliet Stevenson (whom I've admired since TRULY MADLY DEEPLY with Alan Rickman) turns in a fittingly humble performance as Mother Teresa. Max von Sydow plays Father Celeste van Exem, the spiritual advisor in whom Mother Teresa confided and corresponded. Rutger Hauer plays Father Benjamin Praagh, the man conducting the process required for beatification and canonization, the man to whom Father Celeste van Exem turns over the intimate writings of Mother Teresa.


In all honesty, I didn't know a lot about Mother Teresa before watching the film, other than the basics mentioned at the outset of this review. I had no idea she faced such resistance — from her church superiors and the people of Calcutta, in particular — in her quest to simply help the poor. And I definitely, like everyone else, had no idea that beneath her steadfast and seemingly assured exterior was a woman who struggled and craved at least a small portion of the compassion and companionship she so generously served others.

Like the woman whose story it tells, THE LETTERS is a low-key, unassuming film. There are no grand theatrics, no cinematic splash and flash, just a window into the heart of a woman we all thought we knew. Sure, we knew Mother Teresa's works; now we know how far more amazing — and saint-like — those works considering the insecurity and loneliness that plagued her heart.

Considering the horrendous events in Orlando this week as well as our political climate and the state of our world in general, I was quite moved by the scene in THE LETTERS in which Mother Teresa recited The Prayer of St. Fancis of Assissi upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Here is footage of the real-life moment (and the text of the prayer):

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace,
that where there is hatred, I may bring love;
that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
that where there is error, I may bring truth;
that where there is doubt, I may bring faith;
that where there is despair, I may bring hope;
that where there are shadows, I may bring light;
that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;
to understand, than to be understood;
to love, than to be loved. 
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

One final note not shared in THE LETTERS: In December 2015, Pope Francis recognized the final requirement for Mother Teresa's canonization (a second miracle). The Vatican has scheduled her canonization for September 4, 2016.

THE LETTERS (rated PG "for thematic material including some images of human suffering"... a rating description I've never seen before) was released theatrically in the U.S. in December 2015 and is now available on DVD and streaming services.