An earnest film that relies on the legend of Mother Teresa, without adding much new.
Who knew there’s so much red tape involved if a nun decides to give up everything to work for the poor? If there’s one thing director William Riead’s new film, The Letters, a biopic on the life of Mother Teresa, does well, it’s showing the bureaucratic web the late Mother had to swim through in order to follow her call from God: to help the poorest of the poor, in a still very much caste-driven India.
Especially as we get further from Mother Teresa’s death, at the age of 87 in 1987, the reason this sort of film works, is through filling in the gaps, letting a legend become a human. But whether it’s the shortage of the source material (Teresa shied away from journalistic coverage, and the film is based on letters she wrote to friends and family) or just the reverence of the filmmakers, there seems to be a certain hollowness to this film that’s ironically all about a woman with a lot of heart.
At least the lead was well cast. Juliet Stevenson does a commendable job with the accent (a Macedonian living and India), as well as portraying the humbleness of her character—it’s not so easy reciting lines like “It’s God’s work, not mine” and coming off as entirely genuine. Indeed the first 35 minutes of the film, which focuses primarily on her attempt to convince both the mother general of the girl’s school where she teaches and the pope in Rome that she should be allowed to give up her vows as a cloistered nun in order to work amongst the poor, is very watchable.
But by the time we actually get onto the streets of Calcutta, The Letters becomes something of a lazy movie, both in writing and acting. The dialogue feels cliché and somehow condensed (like instead of going through the trouble of zeroing in on an evolving relationship, the lines from the Indians repeat the refrain “You want to convert our kids to your Christian god?” or “What are you doing among us, white woman?”). It’s as if years of dialogue are abbreviated into just the main ideas. And thus, we never really feel for any of the relationships she makes on the street.
The one attempt at creating a real relationship takes place in the span of about 10 minutes. An Indian man is among her chief critics, but surprise surprise, in the very next scene when she helps his wife deliver her baby, he falls to his knees in gratitude. There’s never again dialogue between the two characters, but he shows up time for time, like in a scene where she tries to turn a temple into a hospice for the poor. It’s just assumed in black and white that he’s giving his support, that the two are forever allied. The music feels equally forced and lazy, heavy strings coming in whenever she teaches a child to read or helps a dying man, as if there needs to be a scrolling marquee above each scene: “You’re supposed to be feeling moved right now.”
The movie requires a lot of assumptions in lieu of actually developing characters and relationships. It’s as if its expected the viewer will come in already in full admiration of the character, so taking the time to show a character arc, or any intimate scenes, is completely unnecessary. But, of course, it is necessary. One of the film’s biggest missteps is in its structure. We start in the modern-day, where a man of the cloth is making the case for Teresa’s canonization as a saint. He serves as the film’s narrator, and tells us of Teresa’s loneliness as shown in the letters and her crises of faith, and yet none of these themes that would have done wonders to make Teresa seem relatable are acted out in actual scenes. It’s as if the script falls prey to that old writing adage, “show, don’t tell.” There’s a lot of telling.
But where there’s not any telling is in a complete failure to address the criticisms laid against Teresa in more modern times (the lack of medical training of her staff, as well as some questions on how money was being used). These criticisms may not be entirely fair, but ignoring them makes the film feel something like a Hallmark channel movie, meant to make the viewers feel good, even at the risk of over-sensationalizing a topic.
The fact of the matter is conflict creates interest. It gets viewers engaged. It creates stakes. And besides the initial arc with the bureaucratic red tape of getting the Vatican to approve her mission, there just isn’t enough conflict to keep the steam up, especially not for two hours. Every encounter on the streets turns into a mini miracle. Not setbacks there. We only get told about her internal struggles in the most periphery way—surely Stevenson could have handled some harder scenes with the subtle grace the part requires. And we don’t even attempt to address contemporary criticisms. The film doesn’t do a lot more to explain who Teresa is than her Wikipedia page, and for a film about a woman who loved the unloved, that seems like a real missed opportunity.