The Austin Chronicle

The Letters

Rated PG, 114 min. Directed by William Riead. Starring Juliet Stevenson, Rutger Hauer, Max von Sydow, Priya Darshini, Greg Heffernan, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, Kranti Redkar, Tillotama Shome.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Dec. 4, 2015

Remember those religious biopics the major Hollywood studios churned out for the faithful back in the day, movies about the lives of the saints, such as the virginal jeune fille who witnessed a beautiful lady in a Lourdes grotto (The Song of Bernadette) or the virginal (again) peasant maid of Orleans burned at the stake after leading her nation into battle (Joan of Arc), among others? Heavenly choirs, upturned faces, diffused light streaming from above: Hollywood fashioned a Roman Catholic mythos to elevate audiences with ennobling stories of simple people chosen by God to work miracles and behold sacred mysteries. Sure, it was a bunch of revisionist claptrap, but it inspired many an impressionable altar boy and convent school girl hoping to glimpse a vision or hear celestial voices, the lapsed yours truly included.

The Letters is a contemporary take on this dust-covered genre, mostly relating the early vocation of Mother Teresa, the renowned nun who served the poor in the slums of Kolkata, founded the still-thriving Missionaries of Charity, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her life’s work. Granted, the woman’s no saint, technically speaking – she’s a miracle short of canonization – but few today see her as anything less, and rightly so. But there’s not much of the old-school uplift here to celebrate this remarkable person. The movie simply trudges along, tirelessly making its rounds, just like its holy sister walking impoverished streets with grim purpose. Indeed, the film purports to debunk the notion of Mother’s Teresa’s godliness by frequently referencing the titular missives, which allegedly revealed a lonely soul who experienced spiritual darkness and fears of abandonment during the course of her life. (By the fourth or fifth time the priests, played by von Sydow and Hauer, describe the contents of these letters, each time in an almost identical fashion, you may scream for divine intervention.) But God forbid the film actually read from those letters to give you a sense of this anguish or somehow convey her existential angst concretely through action rather than words. As Mother Teresa, the usually proficient Stevenson gets caught up in a sliding accent and humbling gestures that distract from the human being under the veil. It’s a depressingly unformed performance, but you can’t lay full blame on her for its one-dimensionality. The movie simply doesn’t act on the dare to portray Mother Teresa as someone more complicated than the way the world otherwise views her, leaving you to wonder why it’s titled The Letters in the first place. It may be the biggest mystery since the Immaculate Conception.

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