Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Letters

3/4

Starring: Juliet Stevenson, Rutger Hauer, Max von Sydow, Priya Darshini, Kranti Redkar,  Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal

Rated PG for Thematic Material including Some Images of Human Suffering

What makes Mother Theresa so compelling and inspiring is that despite her fears that God has abandoned her and the struggles against India's caste structure, she steadfastly remained compassionate and non-judgmental.  To many, the poor were society's cast-offs, not worthy of a second thought.  To her, they were human beings who deserved help and respect.

When the film opens, Theresa (Stevenson) is a sister at Sisters of Loreto in Calcutta.  She dedicated her life to teaching, but she witnessed the suffering of the poor outside her windows.  Eventually, she realized that her true calling was to go beyond the walls of her convent and live among the impoverished and do what she could to help.  Of course, doing so isn't that simple.  It requires permission from the Vatican.  Even when she gets permission to do so for a year, she faces stiff opposition, both from her Mother General (Mody-Kotwal), who cites regulations and eventually her stealing would-be nuns from her convent, and the people she is trying to help, who see her as both a British sympathizer (this takes place shortly after Indian independence) and an evangelist.  Nevertheless, she soldiers on and does what she believes to be God's work.  Her fame and popularity grows to the point where she is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

The film starts out roughly.  The dialogue is flat and the direction is pedestrian.  Eventually, the power of the story gains our interest.  Gene Siskel once said that if nothing happens by the end of the first reel, nothing will happen.  Fortunately, this is an exception.

I am of two minds regarding the casting of Juliet Stevenson as Theresa.  On the one hand, she's miscast.  The actress doesn't fit in her character's skin (the absence of any age-related make-up in the film does not help matters).  On the other, she gives it her all and I eventually accepted her as the character.  But it's a much tougher sell than it should be.  This isn't quite the "known name" habit of Hollywood that "Tropic Thunder" so viciously parodied, but it comes close.  Eventually, Stevenson won me over.  The other two known actors, Rutger Hauer and Max von Sydow, are effective as priests discussing Theresa's life, but they're wasted.  Max von Sydow is relegated to providing background about Theresa, most of which would probably have been more effective if it had been shown rather than told.  I like the actor, but this is not the best use of his considerable talents.  Hauer has even less to do.  Apart from asking a question or two and making a case for her beatification, his entire role consists of sitting down to listen to von Sydow's character.

What I especially liked about this film is its refusal to evangelize (doing so would go against what she stood for).  Theresa's doubts about God play a huge part in the proceedings and add depth to the character.  This is not hero worship.  Her goodness is shown through her love and compassionate nature.

"The Letter" feels incomplete.  Just when things are getting interesting, it starts to tie everything up.  I guess that the budget had something to do with it.  Mother Theresa deserves, and will eventually get, a biopic worthy of her, but this is a respectable effort.

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