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'The Letters': A Mash Note to Mother Teresa

Juliet Stevenson stars as the saintliest of sisters

Juliet Stevenson as Mother Teresa in The Letters

Courtesy of CinemaWest

Juliet Stevenson as Mother Teresa in 'The Letters'

Rating: PG

Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

Stars: Rutger Hauer, Juliet Stevenson, Max von Sydow

Director: William Riead

En español | The Letters, the earnestly-told story of Mother Teresa's early years working among the poor in India, is a fond throwback to old-time Hollywood hagiography. Such films still turn up on TV around Christmas and Easter, offering us noble movie versions of faith-based figures like St. Bernadette (stoic Jennifer Jones), Moses (magisterial Charlton Heston) and Joan of Arc (grim but still-too-sexy Ingrid Bergman).

For better or for worse, in recent decades the movies have shifted away from depicting heroes as utterly wartless. Even the most revered individual, it seems, must have a nagging flaw or dark secret.

Swimming strongly against that current is William Riead, the writer-director of The Letters, whose vision of Mother Teresa is utterly saintly. From the moment Teresa (Juliet Stevenson) sets foot on the filth-encrusted streets of Calcutta, she puts her head down and gets to work feeding the poor and caring for the dying. For Teresa, there's no time for frivolity, no acknowledgment of red tape, no concern for local custom — and, therefore, little opportunity for character development. In fact, the Teresa we meet as a novice, casting herself prostrate on a stone church floor at her investiture, is indistinguishable from the one who accepts a Nobel Peace Prize at film's end. As envisioned by The Letters, Teresa of Calcutta never had anything to learn — only lessons to impart.

For the Mother Teresa fans among us (I consider myself one), that's probably enough. And in this age of Tarantinian cynicism, it's refreshing to encounter the occasional movie character who is blessedly devoid of guile. (For that matter, it's also a relief to attend a film where we're not expected to hiss and throw our popcorn at the screen the moment a Catholic priest appears.)

As Teresa, Juliet Stevenson (Truly Madly Deeply) makes the most of her material, having mastered that stiff, full-body turn that movie nuns always seem to make when simply swiveling their heads would do. When she smiles benignly, her face seems to radiate the very light of heaven. She even adopts, perhaps a few decades prematurely, the stooped, shuffling gait that distinguished the aged Mother Theresa in the newsreels that introduced her to the world.

The Letters frames the story of Mother Teresa with scenes in which a Vatican priest (Rutger Hauer) is busy assembling a report on the recently deceased nun's consideration for sainthood. He drops in on an old priest (Max von Sydow), who as Teresa's spiritual mentor corresponded with her for most of her life. His collection of letters, which lend the film its name, supposedly reveals a dark, deeply troubled side to the nun's character. That "darkness," referred to repeatedly by the two clerics, is supposed to give The Letters a dramatic hook. Regrettably — from a narrative perspective, you understand — it's all talk: Although Teresa faces multiple obstacles in ministering to the poor, she's portrayed largely as a plucky, can-do character who simply shrugs and overcomes each one.

Look, Mother Teresa's life among the poorest of the poor was tough enough, and far be it from me to wish any manufactured misfortunes upon her for the sake of a cool movie script (though a car chase around the one-hour mark would have been welcome). But with a film persona as whitewashed as her robes, the Mother Teresa of The Letters is not so much inspiring as inauthentic.

Even Moses had a temper problem. Saints are saints because they find the grace to transcend their flawed humanity. That's also what makes them interesting.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.