Faith Reels: ‘The Letters’ … darkness amidst the light

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster


This is the story of Mother Teresa, her journey with and without God, from cloistered nun, to the streets, and possibly to sainthood.


Some of the most common components of films these days include conflict (some extreme and often violent), sex (explicit and/or inferred), humor (laced with current concepts) or just plain good acting from well-known actors.


‘The Letters’ has none of these components but is nonetheless compelling in a very understated way. In fact, the most compelling aspect of the film is that probably most people who see this film know about Mother Teresa and the life of service to the poor that she led. ‘The Letters’ is refreshing in straightforward simplicity and in the partial telling of the committed life of service to the poor embraced by Mother Teresa (Juliet Stevenson).


Though difficult it might be for the film to give us a glimpse into the self-sacrificing commitment of the miraculous ministry of this woman, the film falls short in conveying the magnitude of her life of service.


In the film the bid for Mother Teresa’s sainthood is researched on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church and her story is told as two men, Father Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow) and Benjamin Praggh (Hauer) recount her life.


Through letters written by Mother Teresa over five decades, movie-goers learn of her felt abandonment by God. There is some speculation but little depth on behalf of the researchers about her reasons for feeling abandoned.


Particular important public events in Mother Teresa’s life such as her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, establishing the Missionaries of Charity and her daily care for the poor and sick in the streets of Calcutta are all highlighted, but the commitment she made to her call from God to serve the poor is portrayed without the passion that must have actually driven it in real life.


Understanding that it is extremely difficult to depict on film such a life as lived by Mother Teresa, there is something missing in this film that left us saying to ourselves, “There is so much more to it than this.”


Reports from the Vatican this week say Pope Francis has recognized a second medical miracle attributed to Mother Teresa clearing the way for her sainthood later this year. But not everyone thinks she is saintly material. Online searches reveal those who find fault in her handling of money and a toleration of suffering that belies her professed love.


But the Mother Teresa we see on screen is one who clearly enlarges her vision and increases her ministry to those whom Jesus most closely identified; the hungry, homeless, outcast.


The words of David Haas’ hymn, “Song of the Body of Christ” come to mind as the young nun struggled seeing the teeming poor outside the convent school walls: “We are called to heal the broken, to be hope for the poor. We are called to feed the hungry at our door.”


Bonnie Anderson is a very active lay leader in her parish, diocese and in the wider Episcopal Church. She is an experienced community organizer and lives in suburban Detroit. Dan Webster is an Episcopal priest in Baltimore, Maryland and a former broadcast news executive. But don’t expect only east coast urban perspectives here. As it turns out, they both grew up in Southern California.  They blog about films and faith at Faith Reels

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