What makes a person great? Great accomplishments? Selflessness? Motivation and determination? Not allowing greatness to get in the way of further accomplishments? In the case of Mother Teresa of Calcutta
check, check, check, check. The docudrama "The Letters" (PG, 1:54) portrays a great woman and shows us what made her great, but, almost as importantly, shows us what made her human.
The film uses Mother Teresa's own words in the letters she wrote to tell her story in the context of the Catholic Church's process of examining her life for beatification and possible canonization. It turns out that the ethnic Albanian woman who was born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, chose to become Sister Teresa and became world famous as Mother Teresa experienced intense loneliness and dealt with long-term doubts about the presence of God in her life. Even so, she managed to become the personification of love, compassion and selfless service and started a worldwide movement to help the disadvantaged.
The letters provide the framework for the story when a priest named Benjamin Praggh (Rutger Hauer) travels to India to meet with Mother Teresa's long-time spiritual adviser, the elderly Father Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow) and discusses her life. Father van Exem quotes from her letters throughout the film and ultimately gives Father Praggh five decades' worth of letters to aid in his investigation. The scenes in which the two priests talk (the weakest moments in an otherwise very strong film) are short, few and far between. This story is mainly told chronologically within extended flashbacks which vividly illustrate why the woman who wrote those letters was such a special and compelling character.
Most of the movie focuses on less than seven years in Mother Teresa's nearly seventy-year-long ministry. In 1946, she was happily teaching privileged young Indian girls at the Loreto convent school in eastern Calcutta, but she becomes increasingly burdened by the extreme poverty that she regularly observes down in the streets literally right outside her classroom window. She felt she was honoring God's call to be become a nun at 18, but now she experiences what she describes as "a call within a call" to go into the slums of Calcutta and work to help that city's "poorest of the poor". Gaining permission to work outside the convent walls requires her to make her case to the convent's short-sighted Mother General (Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal), who forwards it to the convent's priest, then the local bishop, who takes it to the Vatican, where it has to be considered by none other than Pope Pius XII.
The granting of Sister Teresa's initial request (for up to one year) was the beginning of the nun's legendary work ministering to, in her words "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for". She started with nothing but her compassion. She wandered the Calcutta slums helping those she came across who would accept her aid. She had to battle the local Hindu population's hesitation to trust an English-speaking woman in the newly independent nation and the animosity from those who were sure that she was there to convert people to Catholicism. She also had to navigate the many rules and restrictions of the Catholic Church and deal with the opposition of some who felt that her apparent calling was contrary to the vows she had taken years earlier. Still, in spite of all this, she persevered and left a lasting legacy.
"The Letters" is a surprisingly powerful movie. Its particular strength is the performance of British actress Juliet Stevenson in the main role which she embodies with remarkable authenticity – physically, emotionally and spiritually. You don't have to be a spiritual person to appreciate her performance or this film. In the movie, just as in Mother Teresa's life, her faith was the background of her story and the foundation of her work, but her innate goodness as a person is what shines most brightly. The film's sets and script are simple, but they seem appropriate for the simplicity of this story. The portrayal of Mother Teresa's personal and spiritual struggles and triumphs are entertaining, touching and compelling. The real Mother Teresa wanted her letters destroyed upon her death for fear that people would "think more of me and less of Jesus." Either way, her letters have survived to further inspire others – and produce one h*** of a movie. In conclusion, to sum up "The Letters": I have a letter for you: "A".