A Pencil in God’s Hand

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I’m unsure of the source, but somebody (maybe T.S. Eliot or Igor Stravinsky) once quipped that there is nothing as moving as bad music. You may think of this if you see The Letters, a new film about the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

It’s a movie so weighted down by its own structural baggage that the emotional impact, which keeps it from completely falling apart, may constitute another miracle for the cause of Mother Teresa’s canonization.

            The Letters is annoyingly repetitious by being both epistolary and expository: by being framed by letters (from and to Mother Teresa, played by English actress Juliet Stevenson) and by conversations between her (real) correspondent, Fr. Celeste van Exem, S.J. (Max von Sydow) and the (fictional) postulator for Mother Teresa’s beatification, Fr. Benjamin Praagh (Rutger Hauer).

Dates and places flash portentously across the screen: Dublin, Calcutta, Rome, Calcutta; 1931, 1998, 2003, 1946 – all this within minutes of the opening credits. We see Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu become Sister Teresa; we see van Exem reminiscing with Praagh about her, of whom he says – not a few times throughout the film – she saw darkness and felt “no God in her,” yet had the courage to leave the cloister of Loreto for the mean streets of what we now call Kolkata.

Well, this is the outline of the story we all know, but the film’s narrative suffers from never really developing sequences of sufficient length for us to observe, with any depth or insight, the actual drama of Teresa’s life. Indeed, it’s axiomatic that time-place callouts and narration are what a filmmaker uses when he can’t develop characters or tell a story.

It may not matter to some filmgoers that this “true” story invents a postulator character (the real priest doing that job is Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk), or that this character speaks with Fr. van Exem in 2007 (as one of those on-screen dates tells us), which is actually fourteen years after van Exem’s death, or that the film invents a reporter called Graham Widdecombe, who does radio reports about Mother Teresa that catapult her into international prominence, when the reporter who actually did that was Malcolm Muggeridge. Mother described herself to him as merely a “pencil in the hand of God.”

Call it poetic license or deduce that American journeyman director William Riead had neither the willingness to approach nor the cooperation of those who mattered as he undertook what he has called a 14-year-long “labor of love.” Well, a little less love and a bit more labor would have helped. This is not Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi: not an epic tale.

Bad news?
Bad news?

Give Mr. Riead credit, however, for stretching his modest budget (and cinematographer Jack Green and the set and production designers for aiding the “look”) and getting the story on film. The movie was shot partly in Goa (southwest India), despite the fact that Kolkata is in West Bengal in the northeast. The large Christian minority there probably made for a more congenial environment – definitely because of Goa’s enduring colonial cityscapes, side by side with modern buildings and lovely estates.

All that allowed Goa to stand in not only for old Calcutta but also for both the Vatican (except for a brief exterior shot of Rome) and Norway (for Mother Teresa’s Nobel Prize reception). Still, that prize ceremony more resembles a folks-in-shirt-sleeves, church-basement Christmas pageant than the rather grander 1979 affair in Oslo’s City Hall. But you make do with the budget you have.

The relentless repetition of the film’s few themes – we see Mother struggling, we cut to van Exem telling Praagh how she suffered – is not helped by the few scenes in which the potential for real drama, if not to say excitement, are dampened by leaden dialog or, worse, by acting that is so awful it’s hard not to laugh. As when an angry crowd of Hindus gathers outside the converted temple wherein the Missionaries of Charity are caring for the dying. There is fist-shaking and loud shouting, an all-too-familiar cinematic device akin to villagers gathered outside Frankenstein’s lair, except not as directed James Whale but by Mel Brooks.

Putting aside the flashbacks and flash-forwards, the heart of The Letters (in which Mother’s soul-searching missives are mostly a subtext, although a vital and humanizing element) is the story of how this tiny (she was barely five-feet tall), courageous woman went with the equivalent of a dollar into neighborhoods, where she was manifestly unwelcome, to care for – as she so famously put it – “the poorest of the poor.”

Ms. Stevenson, who is way too tall and mostly deadpans Mother Teresa, said recently in post-production interview: “I don’t have a religious faith, and she [Teresa] believed so ardently in God. I also couldn’t differ from her more when it comes to her views on women’s rights, birth control and abortion. . .but it was a wonderful challenge.”

Is it possible for actors once in a while to show some respect for the individual portrayed? Yet The Letters is not some crazy Christopher Hitchens-like screed against the “imperialist” nun; it’s respectful – and then some. Yet in that Nobel scene, Stevenson merely recites the Prayer of St. Francis, leaving out Mother Teresa’s more striking commentary. Abortion, the real Mother told her shocked audience, is “the greatest destroyer of peace today. Because if a mother can kill her own child – what is left for me to kill you and you kill me – there is nothing between.”

And yet. . .in the end you find yourself agreeing with “Fr. Benjamin Praagh,” who says of Mother Teresa to a room full of clerics at the Vatican (presumably the Congregation for the Causes of Saints): “I cannot imagine anyone more worthy of sainthood.”

For this reminder, at least, The Letters has merit.

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Brad Miner

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio.

  • Manfred

    Brad: A few days ago, you reported on the film SPOTLIGHT, which chronicles the Boston Globe’s story of priest predators and the news people who exposed them in 2002. Today there is a new “Spotlight” story in the making. The Cardinal Abp. of N.Y.,who introduced an LGBT group into the St. Patrick’s Day parace this year, is being sued by fourteen parishioners for allowing their homosexual pastor to remain in his position, even though they alerted the Cdl to the fact three years ago that he was embezzling money from their parish to pay for his sodomite activities.
    There is no mention of this very important story on TCT.

    • Brad Miner

      Well, Manfred. You’ve mentioned it.

      • Manfred

        Thank you for posting my comment Brad. I did not mean to jump the line on your column on Mother Teresa; but as you had posted a column on SPOTLIGHT, I thought the readership would benefit from reading of this scandal which is going to become quite large.The readers often ask: “Why are we confronted each day with battles in the Church over liturgy, marriage preparation, Obama being invited to Notre Dame, pro-abort catholic politicians being allowed to receive the Body of Christ, why was Cdl Burke, who could not be more orthodox and sound, removed by the pope from the Signatura, why are Cardinals and Bishops writing books defending the Sacrament of Marriage from a pope who wishes to give the Body of Christ to adulterers, why are bishops allowing LGBT groups to march in Catholic parades in New York and Atlanta?
        What this scandal I wrote about today will demonstrate to TCT readers and the laity at large is that as long as homosexual priests and bishops do not prey on boys and young men and cost the Church money in lawsuits, they will be left alone by their superiors to live in sin even though their parishioners complain of embezzlement, heretical sermons and liturgies. This is exactly one of the main causes of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago which split the Church so badly It has never recovered. The Church is splitting right now.

    • Evangeline1031

      I concur with Manfred. That story sounds as if it is only going to grow. Being such a major diocese with a major Cardinal, it has to be covered. Sadly, our church is in trouble, and this sad situation speaks to the heart of the problem.

  • Michael DeLorme

    Ever since her moving performance as Billy Kwan “a Chinese-Australian dwarf of high intelligence and moral seriousness” in the 1982 drama “The Year of Living Dangerously”—set in Indonesia at the time of President Sukarno’s overthrow—I’ve thought that Linda Hunt would be the perfect actress to play Mother Theresa. And, from what I read above, I imagine she’d still turn in a more believable portrayal of the future saint.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Just an anecdote. First time I personally saw her was in the Beda Pontifical College chapel. I knew she was or would be there. All I observed were other seminarians and a couple of old typically Italian women sitting by a column. When the cardinals celebrating Mass called Mother Teresa forward one of the old ladies stood up and approached the sanctuary. Cardinals immediately surrounded her smiling and seeking attention. She smiled gently without any pretension or ownership of her obvious notability. Years later I was asked to celebrate Mass and hear confessions at one of her convents in Harlem, an old disused school offered by the city as a refuge for battered women. The girls [At my age any woman under 50 is a girl] most perhaps in their twenties showed vitality and joy. Their confessions were nothing extraordinary except for great confidence in God’s love. Their ‘convent’ life was austere. The place was cold and they were bare footed. This more than anything has impressed me with Mother Teresa’s great sanctity.

    • Evangeline1031

      Thank you for sharing that. I am sure you are correct about her sanctity.
      Here’s my anecdote related to her.
      At one time she was in Providence, RI. I worked at a university and considered taking the afternoon off so that I could go and see her. I considered her eminently “worth” doing that, just to catch a glimpse of this obviously holy woman.
      I did not take the afternoon off. I decided, fool that I was, that I had better conserve my time at work.
      I regret that decision.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I started watching this, but couldn’t bring myself to finish it. No review that I have seen has mentioned the obviously cliched portrayal of cardinals and bishops. When the Bishop of Calcutta goes on an ad limina visit to Rome where is he going to present Sister Teresa’s request for exclaustration, he is meeting with what one presumes to be the prefect of the Congregation for Religious. Three very nervous Indian bishops are in the room with the white cardinal who is enthroned and surrounded by aides (don’t know if there was a statement intended with that set-up or not). *All* of the clerics in this scene (and a similar subsequent scene) have Rosaries in their hands and the beads are slipping through their fingers as they talk. Someone please tell directors that if bishops and cardinals in Rome were all praying the Rosary that much, the place would be a whole lot better off than it is!

  • Evangeline1031

    I saw some of this film, better called a movie, perhaps, last year. I did not think it was terrible, but as with so many of the film attempts to capture someone and something so epic, it often falls very short. Casting is key, and this actress just didn’t capture her, in my opinion. It may not be possible to capture her. Certainly it takes more than mere acting to portray someone like Mother Teresa, and someone who is diametrically opposed to the belief system of Mother Teresa and knows it is not likely to be able to best represent her. That’s not smart casting, that’s settling for someone who resembles her in some way or has a similar accent.
    I felt the same way after watching the well-intentioned “Therese” done by St. Luke Productions, I believe, a great film company with talented Catholic believers at the helm. It just left me flat, because while I watched it I kept saying “so what” about the lead, her life, her actions, her words. St. Terese has a compelling persona and story, but it just didn’t seem interesting in the film.
    Now why would that be, when the film “Song of Bernadette” had the exact opposite effect? I don’t know. When these films are well done they are wonderful, but they have an elusive quality that is very hard to capture.

  • Evangeline1031

    Oddly enough I didn’t think the “angry Hindu scene” was terrible at all.

  • Dave Fladlien

    I find it puzzling that Mother Teresa hasn’t been canonized yet. Do we really need another miracle for a person who, like St. Maximilian Kolbe, or St. John XXIII, is clearly a saint just from looking at their lives? Anyway, there are two things that really stand out to me that I’ve heard attributed to Mother Teresa, one of which I’ll mention here:

    I’ve read that a man once approached her and said that he had a very tough decision to make, and asked if she’d pray that God would grant him clarity. She replied that she’d be happy to pray for him, but God might never grant him clarity; he might just have to trust God instead.

    Maybe there is a message in there for all of us now with all the apparent turmoil in the Church, in the world for that matter: we may not be able to figure it all out — we may need to just trust God.

    • Bro_Ed

      Dave, they’ve got to be sure. Years ago I heard the late Robin Williams do a bit on scandal. He said that every person has something to hide: “…even Mother Teresa. You know that little blue dress she wears?” We all leaned forward to hear the disclosure. He said, “She has TWO of them.”