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.