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SIGNIS Statement on The Letters
Melbourne, Brussels. December 10th, 2015 (Peter Malone/SIGNIS). The Letters in the title of this film of those written by Mother Teresa of Calcutta to her spiritual director, the Jesuit Father Celeste van Ekem, over a period of almost 50 years. Mother Teresa died in 1997.
This does not necessarily sound an attractive title for audiences to go to a feature film. It sounds more like a documentary. However, the letters are always in the background of Mother Teresa’s story, sometimes coming to the forefront, so that the action of the film concentrates on her life and her work.
It is significant that The letters concern Mother Teresa’s dark nights of soul and senses, not only difficulties of belief in God but a dread sense of being abandoned by God. This does is addressed right at the beginning of the film where the promoter of Mother Teresa’s cause goes to visit Father Celeste van Ekem in retirement in England to receive and read the letters and evaluate them in the light of Mother Teresa being declared Blessed. There also scenes from the Vatican where meetings are held to discuss the miracles attributed to Mother Teresa – with a glimpse of this miracle at the beginning of the film – and their place in the approval of her beatification. (There are also a number of Vatican scenes from the 1940s, petitions for Mother Teresa to leave Loretto, to establish her congregation – exceedingly formal and stiff, not in the vein of Pope Francis!)
The Letters will be a film of great Catholic interest, Mother Teresa being well-known to so many Christians, Catholics and others like. Because she was such a public figure over such a long time, there will be an audience right around the world for this film. Since the release and the financial success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004, commentators have noted that there is a greater appetite for specifically and explicitly religious films. Again, because of Mother Teresa being a public figure, most admiring her, some critics writing against her, the film offers an opportunity to look at Mother Teresa’s life, her work, her motivations, her achievement and assess them in the context of her committed faith life and her ministry and service.
The film was written and directed by American William Riead, radio journalist, television cameraman, director of “The Making of…) Documentaries in the 1980s and 90s. In terms of some reputable acting power, the promoter for the cause is played by Rutger Hauer and the spiritual director himself by the venerable actor, Max von Sydow. Max von Sydow brings considerable gravitas to his presence and performance.
There have been two television films on Mother Teresa: Mother Teresa: in the Name of God’s Poor, 1997, with Geraldine Chaplin and, in 2003, Mother Teresa with Olivia Hussey. This time the casting is British actress, distinguished for her stage and screen work, Juliet Stevenson.
One of the great advantages of this film is that so much of it was filmed on location in India and with an Indian cast.
While the letters on Mother Teresa’s religious experience pervade the film, it actually tells the story of her work from 1946 to 1952, her discerning whether to leave her community life and her teaching at school in Calcutta and to work amongst the poor. They were long delays in receiving a reply from the Vatican, her moving out of the convent, initial resistance to her presence in work by many of the Indians fearing that she was proselytising amongst the Hindus, her early companions, the support of the Archbishop of Calcutta, the advice of her spiritual director, the final approval – and glimpses of her shrewdness in dealing with authorities, persuading them to give her material and financial support, and the interest of the media in her story.
With Juliet Stevenson’s performance, a broken English accent, the slight stoop that Mother Teresa had, the film offers an opportunity for the audience to reflect on the whole process that led to the establishment of the work of the Missionaries of Charity. The screenplay, which does show the young Loretto sister making her vows in Dublin in the early 1930s as well as her classes in the College, gives audiences enough time for the audience to ponder her motivation, the poverty in the streets at the time of India’s Independence, the practical difficulties of her work, the hostilities, even demonstrations against her when she is given a disused Hindu temple as a hostel for men and women dying in the streets.
The audience also realises that Mother Teresa was not an immediate, overnight success in her new work. She had to move carefully and prudently, adopted local clothing (not a habit, although it has become one) so that she could identify as ordinary amongst people. The permissions were given gradually, not always with the support of the Loretta superiors, and there were discussions, with Mother Teresa and her certainty of her mind and intent, about the establishment of her religious congregation, its rules and canonical status.
Because some American media took some interest in her story in the late 1940s, audiences also realise that she became a media topic almost immediately which continued for the next 40 years or so, leading to greater acknowledgement around the world, including being awarded the Nobel Piece Prize in 1979 – a sequence, with her speech, with which the film ends. No need to show the details of her life and work in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, most of the 1990s, because it was a continuation of the initial work, service and spirituality. Not everybody agreed with Mother Teresa’s methods, many considering them to limited – but no one can take it away from her that she was actually there in the streets, assisting.
While the screenplay is certainly geared towards a faith audience, it is also written in such a way that people of non-faith who admired Mother Teresa can be interested in and involved in her story.
US, 2015, 114 minutes, Colour.
Juliet Stevenson, Max von Sydow, Rutger Hauer and a large Indian cast.
Written and directed by William Riead.