We talk about films being hagiographic, but this one wins it. Not that that’s a good thing. The Albanian nun Mother Teresa has already been “beatified” by the Vatican, and will be declared a saint once a second miracle has been attributed to her. This fatuous movie thinks it has mounted some sort of support for her sainthood… though it has no choice but to do so by being wholly credulous, absurdly reverent, willfully ignorant, and disregarding absolutely everything to do with the life and beliefs of the former Anjezë Bojaxhiu that is nasty, skeptical, or unpleasantly fundamentalist.
The Letters opens in the late 1990s with Vatican investigator Benjamin Praagh (Rutger Hauer: Batman Begins, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) peeking in on the Indian woman whose claim that Mother Teresa healed her abdominal complaints from beyond the grave is considered the nun’s first miracle. He doesn’t actually investigate, like, say, by talking to the woman’s doctors — who have, indeed, roundly debunked her claim of a miracle; she was cured by good old-fashioned scientific medicine. Praagh just accepts with awe the woman’s story.
And this sets the stage for the rest of the film, based on a collection of letters Teresa wrote to her spiritual advisor, Father Celeste van Exem (Aapo Pukk as a young man, Max von Sydow [Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Robin Hood] as the elder version). Never mind that the letters were published after her death despite her request that van Exem destroy them. The film does mention this, though not with any understanding of what a fantastic PR opportunity Teresa was and continues to be for a Vatican beset by bad publicity, and that there are many selfish reasons for Teresa’s sainthood to be manipulated, such as by skipping the required waiting period of five years after someone’s death to begin the process; the Pope jumped right in. (The fantasy Vatican of this movie is full of kindly old men in fancy gowns just doing right by a kindly little nun.) Then again, Teresa was not one for heeding people’s wishes: her hospices in India were known for baptizing Hindus against their will on their deathbeds, when they couldn’t object. So perhaps the unwanted publication of her letters is only poetic — or literary — justice. It still sucks, though.
Forced baptisms? Nowhere to be found here. Just kindly young nuns in the thrall of Teresa (Juliet Stevenson: Diana, A Previous Engagement) holding the hands of wretched poor people as they die. Squalid conditions? Unwashed needles? Children tied to beds? Didn’t happen. But look! Here’s Teresa teaching slum kids to read and reading them stories, awww. None of the documented horrors of Teresa’s establishments in India are to be found here. Of course not: they contradict the glorious myth of the white savior and ultimate poverty tourist Teresa was. (She went to nice clean modern American hospitals when she herself was sick.) Does Praagh ask elderly van Exem, when they visit and chat about Teresa, why her organization had tens of millions of dollars in bank accounts — some of the dough accepted from terrible people like Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier — and yet the people she was “helping” were still in desperate straits? Nope. Does anyone suggest that it was perhaps because she found the suffering of the poor “beautiful” and Godly — she really said these things, publicly and with no shame — and wasn’t actually motivated to end their suffering? Ha.
Instead, we get Teresa accepting her Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and though we are ostensibly presented with her entire speech, nowhere is what she actually said about abortion in the reality-based version of that speech, that it is “the greatest destroyer of peace.” Even many Catholics today would find that unpalatable. So it ain’t here.
Even the one potentially positive aspect of Teresa’s life is overlooked in The Letters, perhaps intentionally, though more likely it simply wasn’t even recognized as a thing: Teresa found a way to do what she wanted when she was supposed to be an obedient nun doing what other people told her to do. She was ambitious, and she realized that if she just declared “God told me to do this!” she could get permission from her male betters to go outside the cloistered convent and live as she pleased; she eventually even convinced them to give her her own order! In an institution that is loathe to grant authority to women, she wrested some for herself. The movie doesn’t seem to recognize what a coup this was for Teresa (or that perhaps this is why the Vatican continues to support the myth of her saintliness, because they can’t be seen to have been wrong about her). Only the sour-faced mother general (Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal: Such a Long Journey) of Teresa’s original convent appears to know what she’s up to; she might have let on to writer-director William Riead.
Riead, by the way, has only two other feature credits to his name, and they’re a couple of low-budget schlock flicks. So it’s probably not surprising that The Letters is clunky, obvious, and heavy-handed. It’s probably not surprising that it is cheap, stagey, and artificial. (Why is Teresa carrying a lantern around to “light” her way in a building that clearly has electric lighting?) It’s probably not surprising that the movie is badly acted, full of stilted dialogue delivered with amateurish halting, though it is surprising that usually reliable actors such as Stevenson, Hauer, and von Sydow are so terrible here.
What is almost unforgivably surprising, however, is that the film cannot even be true to Teresa herself. Toward the end of the film, Praagh makes a little speech about how Teresa’s amazing letters demonstrate “depths of holiness” in her, particularly in how she continued to do what she believed was God’s work even though a “spiritual darkness” was growing inside her and that she felt “abandoned by God.” We don’t hear the actual content of most of these letters, and we never have any idea what she could have meant about being abandoned by God: everything looks peachy keen as far as the movie is concerned, what with her constantly receiving permission from the Vatican for all the outrageous and un-nunlike things she keeps asking to do. In fact, what some (apparently not connected with this movie) consider the most extraordinary thing about Teresa’s letters — as Time magazine described her state of mind in a 2007 article about Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the book of collected missives — is that “she spent almost 50 years without sensing the presence of God in her life,” that she even doubted the existence of God. Nothing in The Letters comes close to hinting this, or comes close to examining such a fundamental contradiction in its subject. This is such a complete botch of a film that it daren’t even ask the questions Teresa asked, or voice the doubts she voiced.