Mother Teresa has long been regarded as a saint even though she has yet to be canonized by the Catholic Church, an important distinction between popular usage and the word’s official meaning. In The Letters, writer/director William Riead adheres to the former while exploring the mechanics of the latter. Flashbacks to key moments in the life of Teresa (Juliet Stevenson) are interspersed with discussions between the Vatican’s postulator (Rutger Hauer) and Jesuit priest Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow), her longtime spiritual director.
During the church’s investigation of Teresa’s life, correspondence emerged that revealed a decades-long crisis of faith, and stalwart supporter van Exem must make the case for her extraordinary devotion. What’s missing is her own anguished voice from the letters (published in 2007 as Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light), wherein she declares that “the place of God in my soul is blank.” Riead shows only the surface of Stevenson’s tireless Teresa, whose stooped posture suggests perpetual prayer. She’s also above controversy: Everyone is soon converted to Teresa’s cause (and her methods) of caring for the poorest of India’s poor, whom the film presents as little more than vessels for her goodness.
Most of the dialogue is exposition, and when characters are asked to elaborate, they simply repeat information in slightly different terms. Jack N. Green’s cinematography eschews darkness, opting for a beatific glow that barely distinguishes between the Vatican’s opulence and Calcutta’s chaotic slums. Riead’s reverential portrait belies Teresa’s thorny complexities and turns her into a single-minded proponent of work hard, pray hard.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on December 4, 2015 by Freestyle Releasing
First published in The Village Voice, 2015.