Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Letters: a Great Movie for the Jubilee of Mercy!

A week from Friday a new movie about Bl. Teresa of Calcutta opens in theaters. You will definitely want to give this one your support. Not only is it a fine depiction of the life of a woman whose name is practically synonymous with "charity," it will give you a really fitting start to the Jubilee Year of Mercy just a few days after the film's release.

Filmed on location in India and the UK, "The Letters" takes us back and forth between the early work of Mother Teresa, and the stages of her process for canonization (beginning with a miraculous healing). We see Teresa as a newly vowed sister, and then in the classroom where she runs a tight ship, even though the sight of starving displaced families just beyond the convent walls pulls at her heart, and India itself is in the throes of birth as an independent nation. 

Fast-forward to modern times: the Postulator for Mother Teresa's sainthood cause investigates the miracle, and then visits an elderly priest who has a cache of letters from Mother that reveal the unsuspected depths of spiritual darkness in which the smiling foundress lived. (Presumably the priest is Mother's spiritual director, Father Celest van Exem, but he actually died in Calcutta years before Mother herself did.) It is the retired priest who serves as the film's narrator.

I was glad that the filmmakers did not attempt to depict Mother's interior life, or that mysterious "call within a call" which she experienced as a Sister of Loretto while riding the train on her way to her annual retreat. We, like Teresa's Loretto superior and the local bishop, have to rely on what we hear from her own lips. We can understand the frustration of the superior who, not having received any particular divine communications of her own, could only see Sister Teresa's insistence on going out among the poor as a kind of rebellion; something that could split the order, siphon off potential vocations and alienate high-caste parents whose daughters might feel drawn to working with untouchables.
We see Mother's initial efforts to teach the children of the poor and to care for the dying met with  suspicion and even threats on the part of many Hindu slum-dwellers who assumed that the white woman's offers of help were only a ruse to try to convert them to her religion. Why else would someone enter their neighborhoods?

It's not easy to depict the core of a saintly person's life, that relationship with God that gives rise to
everything else. In "The Letters," this was done through Mother Teresa's firmly and frequently repeated: "It's God's will. Not mine." (This, followed by a quick, sharp nod as if to say, "There, that's settled.")

"It's God's will. Not mine." That is why she left her beloved Loretto community and set out, alone, to do something that no one else was doing (or knew needed to be done).

"It's God's will. Not mine." This is why she sought official recognition of her community as a new religious congregation in the Church, even when prudence alone would have said it simply couldn't be done.

I have a few quibbles with the way matters liturgical were handled in the film, but that's me. (The mistakes didn't really impact the film; they just got my liturgical antennae up.) I also thought Mother should have aged a bit more visibly between the 1950 canonical establishment of the Missionaries of Charity and the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize (too bad they cut all the really good parts of the speech out for the movie!). These are trifles compared to the opportunity to witness the way "God's will--not mine" can be done amid dirt, grit, disappointment and rejection. And to witness, through the blessing of media well made, how mercy can be expressed when we seek "God's will--not mine."

We need more movies like The Letters!

Watch the real Mother Teresa's Nobel Peace Prize speech.

1 comment:

Angie Briest said...

I love your review of this movie. your absolutely right on. the movie kept me interested all the way through it 2 hour 20 minutes. Oscar worthy performance!