“The Letters”: worth seeing – but read the book

Somewhere between James Bond and a galaxy far far away, there are other films in release. Don’t overlook The Letters, based on the lengthy correspondence between Mother Teresa and her spiritual advisor. Few accounts of the now-beatified nun convey the extent of her very human day-to-day struggles, internal as well as external, as the founder of the Missionaries of Charity. Those struggles are at the heart of the correspondence that inspired the screenplay by William Riead (who also directed the film).Mother Teresa book and ticket

The private letters, which were unknown to Mother Teresa’s fellow nuns, would have been destroyed if her wishes had been followed. Instead, they were retained by her spiritual director, Father Celeste van Exem, who no doubt realized that the letters would be relevant testimony in any proceedings for beatification or canonization. Also, as the actor portraying him says in the film, van Exem knew that people experiencing spiritual discouragement could take heart if they knew that even Mother Teresa had had such crises.

The Letters is a quiet film, not flashy or sensational, and for that reason alone might be worth a couple of your Advent hours.  It’s a quick sketch rather than an in-depth story, and a fictionalized account rather than a documentary. Within those limits, I considered my two hours at the theater well spent, if not entirely satisfactory. There’s much more to the story than the quick sketch Riead affords us – but with much of Mother Teresa’s correspondence now publicly accessible, Riead’s sketch could be an invitation to deeper study.

“It’s God’s will – not mine – I will trust in God.” That was Teresa’s response to objections as she responded to the “call within a call” that took her from being a respected teacher with the Sisters of Loreto to being a servant of India’s poorest people.  As she offered profound charity in the slums and as more women joined her ministry (later the Missionaries of Charity), she was burdened by a sense that God had abandoned her.  One is left to wonder how the poor of Calcutta would have fared had Mother Teresa chosen to work with a less encouraging and discerning spiritual advisor.

Beautifully filmed, with very effective understated music up until the jarring tune over the closing credits, The Letters benefits from elegant production and good casting. Juliet Stevenson as Sister (later Mother) Teresa ages decades over the course of the story not by obvious makeup but by posture, bearing, and tone of voice. She expresses an ongoing dark night of the soul without resorting to caricature. Her spiritual advisor, Fr. van Exem, is played in a kindly yet authoritative manner by Max von Sydow, whose rich voice narrates parts of the story. (Van Exem in his younger days is portrayed by Aapo Pukk, whose resemblance to von Sydow is uncanny.) Rutger Hauer gets third billing but has relatively little screen time as  the priest responsible for investigating the case for sainthood.

Notable in supporting roles – roles actually far more substantial than those afforded to von Sydow and Hauer – are Tillatoma Shome and Vijay Maurya as a Hindu wife and husband deeply suspicious of Mother Teresa and her work.

There are drawbacks to a screenplay that tries to cover half a century in two hours. Some characters, notably the leader of the religious community Mother Teresa left in order to found the Missionaries of Charity, are two-dimensional.  So are some of the scenes. I kept wishing for more material from the letters themselves.

Don’t go looking for any mention of Mother Teresa’s opposition to abortion, which in her Nobel lecture she called “the greatest destroyer of peace in the world today.” Such details fall to the quick-sketch nature of the screenplay.

Director Riead spent over a decade bringing The Letters to the screen, and he obviously has great respect for his subject. It would be something to see if he were to give Mother Teresa’s correspondence the documentary treatment it deserves.

As it is, I left the theater wanting more. Fortunately, more is available. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday, 2007) is a collection of the nun’s letters, edited by a priest of the Missionaries of Charity. In that volume, the sketch of Mother Teresa becomes a portrait.

The Letters offers a glimpse into the inner life of one of the most influential women of our era, framed by a director who treats his subject with respect. For more than a glimpse, read Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. 



Changing jobs & changing lives: thinking about Mother Teresa on Labor Day

A diminutive Albanian nun who thought she was well-settled in her job got a shock on September 7, 1946. No, not a layoff, but something just as disruptive. She eventually referred to it as “the call within a call.” This is worth remembering on this Labor Day, in a time when so many of us find ourselves willingly or unwillingly in transitions at work.

We know this nun today as Mother Teresa. When she embraced her vocation as a Catholic nun, she fully expected to spend her life teaching children. At its best, teaching is noble work, influencing lives for the better. That was her daily work.

So what happened in 1946?  As quoted in the book A Simple Path, Mother Teresa recalled the “call within a call” this way: “When that happens, the only thing to do is to say ‘yes.’ The message was quite clear – I was to give up all and follow Jesus into the slums to serve him in the poorest of the poor.”

It takes courage to leave what seems like a secure job for something new. Think of what we – the whole world – would have missed had she not heeded that call and taken that leap of faith: no Missionaries of Charity, the order she founded. None of the order’s hospitals and hospices. No fearless example of becoming poor in order to serve the poor.

Remember that all this work came from a woman who in midlife let her world be turned upside down by God, in whom she had boundless faith. I suspect my own initial reaction to a similar challenge would be “you’re kidding, right?” But there it stands, the example left for you and me by the first of the Missionaries of Charity.

“This is the future – this is God’s wish for us – to serve through love in action, and to be inspired by the Holy Spirit to act when called.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta, quoted in A Simple Path.