Cinematic Anguish

Juliet Stevenson as Bl. Mother Teresa
“Cinematic Anguish”
A Review of The Letters by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Two Reels            

The Letters finds one of the most beautiful and important hagiographies of 21st century trapped in a deeply flawed film unworthy of its subject matter. It treats the story of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta (Juliet Stevenson) with kid gloves as a standard biopic. Despite being marketed as an examination of the now famous entries detailing her Dark Night, The Letters uses them as surrounding exposition rather than part of the real story. The result is a film that contains individual moments of splendor but falls apart as a whole. It is a wasted opportunity and hopefully a reboot will soon be in the works.
The first five minutes are a series of time flashes to catch the audience up on Teresa’s story. In the past, she joins the Loreto order as a missionary to teach young women in India. In the future, Fr. Praggh (Rutger Hauer) is sent to investigate a possible miracle associated with her intercession and interview her former spiritual director Fr. Van Exam (Max von Sydow). Van Exam explains her struggles with desolation to Praggh through a single meeting that frames the entire film and bogs it down heavily with exposition. Most of the runtime focuses on Teresa’s decision to leave the Loreto order to work with the “poorest of the poor” and eventually start the Missionaries of Charity. The narrative ends almost immediately after its successful formation in 1950.
The most obvious problems are rookie mistakes that demonstrate a lack of professional standards. For example, when a cardinal solemnly reads Teresa’s request for inclaustration, the year is 1948 and the letter even explicitly mentions Pope Pius XII, but the wall contains a large portrait of Pope John XXIII dressed in papal garments. Even worse, during a pivotal moment when Teresa’s teaches the alphabet to a group of slum children, the title music from Inception begins to swell and appears at least several more times in the film. It is understandable for a lower budget movie to license previously used scoring, but incorporating such a recognizable tune immediately takes one out of the experience. A majority of the performances, even that of Stevenson, are unusually stiff and dull. One of the few saving graces is the joy of seeing Max von Sydow back in a Roman collar. It’s good to see Fr. Merrin has aged well.
The narrative does not stray far from the conventions of a biographical picture and never approaches the real terror Teresa experienced. There have been several wonderful documentaries and feature films that examine her life story and are suitable for family audiences. If this film really indented to delve deep into the darkness of her soul, it should have been rated R, a Passion of Mother Teresa so to speak, that freely showed the grim realities of the slums as well as the anguish that tortured her spirit. Teresa herself described it as “knives that pierce my soul.” Lacerations do not make you whimper. They make you scream.

The Letters is a noble effort to pay homage but refuses to push the boundaries of cinematic excellence. In the age of Amazon Studios, Netflix, HBO, and the Weinstein brothers, mediocrity just won’t cut it. She was already honored as a living saint, and that was before the world knew of her torments. She gave everything to the poor and did it almost completely deprived of any spiritual consolations. Her story is one of the most compelling in church history, and The Letters can’t measure up. Perhaps no film can.