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‘The Letters’: A Warm Portrait of Mother Teresa

BY DANIEL GAITAN | daniel@lifemattersmedia.org

Despite opening to mixed reviews and a limited release, The Letters offers a convincing portrait of one of the greatest humanitarians of modern times who devoted her life to caring for the dying, poor and vulnerable.

Directed by William Riead, the low-key biopic depicts the life of Mother Teresa in a straightforward and minimalistic fashion.

It highlights her work from 1946 to 1952, when then-Sister Teresa left her post as head of the Loreto convent and school in Calcutta, India, to answer what she described as a “call within a call.” God, she said, commanded her to leave the safety of the cloistered school and venture into the hopeless slums while remaining nun.

While pursuing her “calling,” Teresa encounters some resistance from local church officials and Hindus worried about being tricked into converting to Christianity. However, the film largely side-steps those trials and focuses on Teresa’s resourcefulness.

In one early scene, she teaches poor children the English alphabet with only a rock and mud. In another, she aids a Hindu woman through painful childbirth with only a basic medical kit– she leaves the woman’s hut covered in blood.

Actress Juliet Stevenson does not so much embody Teresa, but she channels her spirit and body movements. Her head is always lowered; her hands clasped together to show gratitude.

Her efforts payed off. In 1950, with the Vatican’s blessing, Teresa founded her own congregation, the Missionaries of Charity, and became Mother Teresa. Their goal: comfort people of all walks of life, but especially those nearing death.

The PG film is most successful in the few scenes that show her covered with the sweat and tears of the dying. The film would have been much stronger had it showcased more of the valuable hospice care she provided. It could have familiarized viewers with the importance of pain management.

“I must give my life to serve the poorest of the poor,” Teresa says in the film. “I must do something.”

Even though she lived by her devout faith in Jesus Christ and sacrificed all forms of comfort, Teresa still faced doubts, loneliness and moments of depression. The film takes its name from the letters she wrote to her spiritual advisors outlining her struggles.

Stevenson doesn’t over-act during these questioning scenes, which usually take place in her stark bedroom. Those struggles now help emphasize her commitment to God and the poor, according to Father Celeste van Exem, played by Max von Sydow. She was human, he said, with a divine spark.

After years of walking dirt roads in raggedy sandals, sleeping on poor bedding and witnessing countless deaths, Teresa continued to work and work, and work.

Working With Mother Teresa

When he was 28, Jim Towey met Teresa during a trip to India. He said he never expected to be invited to her mission, Kalighat Home for the Dying. However, when Teresa beckoned, Towey asked to care for her most vulnerable patients.

Jim Towey served Mother Teresa for 10 years
Jim Towey served Mother Teresa for 10 years

“They said, ‘Here’s some cotton, and here’s some solution and clean this fellow in bed 46 that has scabies,” he said at a recent Life Matters Media community event. “I just walked in.”

That experience inspired him to continue to work for Teresa, who died in 1997 and was beatified six years later by Pope John Paul II.

“The greatest need people have in that season is to love and to be loved,” he said. “No one’s poorer than someone who has come to the end of their life. When your time has come to an end, you are as poor as it gets.”

Opened To Mixed Reviews

The film has received mixed reviews from mainstream critics. The Los Angeles TimesGary Goldstein described the film as a “warmly wrought” portrait of Teresa.

“A biopic about Mother Teresa could have easily been a self-important slog, yet William Riead’s The Letters proves a stirring and absorbing if not quite definitive drama,” he wrote.

The New York TimesKen Jaworowski offered a lukewarm review, calling it a “fairly standard biopic” without much controversy. He, too, would have appreciated more grit.

The Letters sidesteps any hint of the controversy that sometimes dogged its subject, and avoids delving too deeply into what were surely horrid conditions,” he wrote. “At times it’s even a handsome film, with pretty scenes to watch. For a story set in slums, that too is not high praise.”

But it has also received scathing reviews from a handful of critics who objected to the film’s religious tone, saintly portrayal of Teresa and characterization of India. Some of it seems unfair:

The Letters strives to restart the nun’s candidacy for canonization,” wrote The Wrap’s Inkoo Kang. “It’s as punishingly dull as Sunday-school homework— and just as unnecessary.”

The Letters feels dutiful, not artful,” wrote the AV Club’s Noel Murray.

Sometimes, art imitates life.