Many Catholics fervently believe that Mother Teresa not only deserved the Nobel Prize for her work with the destitute and suffering in India but also merits recognition as a saint. Others—like Christopher Hitchens—have expressed a very different view of the diminutive nun. Whether you fall into either of the extremes or land somewhere in the middle, however, you should agree that William Riead’s “The Letters,” while undoubtedly earnest in espousing a case for Mother Teresa’s canonization, is a very bad film—stilted, turgid and often laughably amateurish.
The title refers to the letters made public some years after her death in 1997, in which the nun had revealed her lifelong struggle against the feeling that there is no God and the darkness she felt in her soul. Those missives to her spiritual adviser Celeste van Exem become the basis for the framing device that turns Riead’s entire movie into a prolonged flashback as the postulator (the Vatican appointee designated to collect evidence in favor of canonization), here called Father Praagh (Rutger Hauer, reduced to smiling piously in a Roman collar), sits down with the elderly Van Exem (Max von Sydow, reciting his lines as if off a teleprompter) to discuss what the letters tell of Teresa’s spiritual life. Their conversation, which periodically interrupts the flashback, eventually segues into Praagh’s presenting his argument in front of a Vatican board.
As to the story of Teresa, played by Juliet Stevenson, apart from a few further flashbacks to her youth, it’s devoted to her 1948 decision to move outside the Calcutta convent school where she’s risen to the position of headmistress as a member of the Sisters of Loretto—and become a favorite of the girls—to serve the poor and dying by establishing a hospice where they can die with dignity. Her proposal is resisted by the Mother General (Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal), who insists on upholding the regulations of their order, which mandate a cloistered life. But Van Exem and the local archbishop (Kalzaad Kotwal) are persuaded to put her case before the Vatican, and she’s allowed to undertake what she sees as her calling on a trial basis. Her work attracts many of her former students to join her, further poisoning her relationship with the Mother General, and eventually she successfully petitions the Vatican to establish an entirely separate congregation called the Missionaries of Charity. Her piety and selfless sense of service gradually overcome initial resistance from the locals and lead to the exponential growth of the congregation and her eventual—though reluctant—recognition in the press, culminating in the receipt of the Nobel prize.
Riead has carefully scrubbed this narrative of anything negative or questionable, including the matters raised by people like Hitchens and other more moderate critics. That hobbles Stevenson, who, bereft of the opportunity to dramatize the nun’s personal doubts, is reduced to little but a gnomic imitation. Sister Teresa’s opponents—the Mother General, for instance—are presented as small-minded obstructionists unable to perceive a divinely-ordained mission. Local resistance is portrayed even more crudely, especially in a crudely-staged scene when a small mob, led by a Hindu priest, protests the government’s turning over a dilapidated temple to Teresa to use as a hospice; the sequence is almost risible, particularly when the crowd is swiftly dispersed by the intervention of an elderly city official. Then there are the two British reporters (Mark Bennington and Greg Heffernan) who are depicted as instrumental in publicizing Teresa’s work despite her humble protestations. Their performances are poor, consisting of mere poses in period suits, but even more absurd is Riead’s apparent decision to build whole scenes around convenient antiques—a car, a telephone—that are placed screen center for optimum effect. The best effect in the picture, in fact, is Riead’s identification of an actor—Aapo Pukk—who can actually convince as a younger version of Von Sydow.
That points to the whole physical production, which frankly looks pretty threadbare—a quality accentuated by Riead’s treating every sequence as part of a clumsy stage pageant. (The Vatican scenes are presented as hilarious tableaux.) Everything is played so deliberately, so clumsily, that the picture lumbers along soporifically, a piece of chintzy hagiography that ends up diminishing rather than celebrating its subject. Perhaps Mother Teresa was a saint, but in Riead’s hands she’s become a plaster one.