The Letters Movie Review
The Letters introduces us to a nun, living in a convent in Calcutta, just after World War II. India has become an independent country and the nation is changing. Sister Teresa saw this change from the convent windows and while traveling by train.
The movie is a quiet and non-linear story line that moves back and forth between Father Celeste van Exem disclosing the content of the letters written by sister Teresa and the scenes of her life as she was living it.
Father Celeste van Exem reveals to the Vatican priest that she wrote of her loneliness, fears, and doubts as she moved from the convent to the streets of Calcutta. As she transitioned from sister Teresa to Mother Teresa. She never had intended that these letters be made public as that would put the focus on her. She wanted the focus to remain on the people who were in need. And on the Missionaries of Charities work she had begun.
Despite any feelings of doubt she had, we watch this nun advocate that she be allowed to live outside the walls of the convent in order to help the people. And we watch as she effectively helped the poorest of the poor, the sick, and the dying.
Sister Teresa, played by Juliet Stevenson, moved humbly through the streets of Calcutta. For me, her accent, patterns of speech, facial expressions, lowering of her head, and hunched posture all rang as genuine. I believe that Juliet Stevenson remained in character and I feel that the mannerisms portrayed are some of the reasons Sister Teresa, a Christian woman, was accepted in this area of Hindu-Muslim violence and strife. Acceptance and trust by the residents of the slums was earned over time and we are given a notion of some of the initial distrust of the "Christian Woman".
What The Letters is Not
There are criticisms that the movie is too slow and boring. And that it is falsely advertised as "a drama that explores the life of Mother Teresa through letters she wrote ..." I do not share these criticisms but that is likely because I went in to the movie with absolutely no expectations. In fact, I half expected to find a heavy-handed religious movie and half expected to shut it off midway through. But for those who have read the advertising or have seen the previews, it is important to know what the movie is not.
- The movie is not action-packed or drama filled
- The movie is not reading of or detailed examination of the letters
- The movie is not an explanation of how a convent came to be in Calcutta, and how/why girls came to live there
- The movie is not an explanation of the political changes Calcutta was going through at the time
- The movie is not an in-depth look at the caste system, or why that is such an important factor for some of the nuns as well as the residents of Calcutta
What The Letters is to Me Personally
I had considered writing this movie review because the movie is an amazing movie about compassion and true charity. However, those who know me would literally laugh at the thought of me watching a "religious" movie and following it with a strong recommendation for others to see it too. I am not someone who practices any formal traditions associated with religion. Yes, I was raised with exposure to a variety of beliefs and religions. I can still quote verses learned in countless vacation bible school programs as a child. However, as an adult, I tend to skirt anything "religious".
Approximately a week ago, I stood at the DVD rental box. I wanted to watch movies, but I did not know what I wanted to see. I was in the mood for movies, but wasn't sure what I was in the mood for. I chose The Letters by chance and with a small hope that the scenes in India would be worth the rental fee. But truthfully, I expected to be bible-thumped and expected to return it without watching the full thing. Not only did I watch the full thing, I am considering purchasing it for my permanent movie library.
I loved the scenes in Calcutta. The movie was far too short to give an in-depth look at the lives of those Mother Teresa touched. But we clearly saw the difficulty of outsiders and Christians being accepted by the residents. Fortunately, Mother Teresa's humility and honesty allowed doors to open.
Despite some negative reviews, I think this was a very good movie given it's length. Had it been longer in length - a mini series perhaps - it would have been able to deeply explore how Sister Teresa earned the trust of the people, obtained the material things she needed in order to be effective, and her doubts as she did all of this amazing work. I agree that there were creaky parts of the film (as discussed on Roger Ebert reviews) such as the political climate, the news reporting, and so on. But in my opinion, even the "creakiest" portion did not detract from my enjoyment of the movie. I guess I'm not surprised by clumsy portions when an entire lifetime, leading up to sainthood, is being summarized in less than two hours.
After watching this movie, as a non-believer, my heart is full. In an overly simplified explanation, I think this movie shows us perfect ways to be a strong woman, the most effective way to provide charity, and the best way to witness for God. It is good to know that there are quietly strong, humble, generous, and effective women doing good work where it is most needed. I will watch The Letters again.
For more information such as a full cast list, and to view an official trailer, see The Letters on the IMDb site.
The official site for Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center.
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