Monday, September 5, 2016

Saint Teresa and The Letters Movie Review

The Letters
The Letters is a beautiful movie summarizing how a Catholic nun became a Nobel Peace prize winner based on her humanitarian work with the poorest of the poor in India. On Sunday morning, September 4th, 2016, I woke to the news that this woman has been canonized as Saint Teresa. The Letters gives us an inside look at why this humble and caring woman was so well-loved.  In this movie, we watch bits of the personal journey that moved her from residing within a convent, to Mother Teresa of the Missionaries of Charities working in the slums of Calcutta, and finally to sainthood. Religious or not, I highly recommend the movie The Letters.  

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.

Related Links:

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.

Note: The author may receive a commission from purchases made using links found in this article. “As an Amazon Associate, Ebay (EPN) and/or Esty (Awin) Affiliate, I (we) earn from qualifying purchases.”


  1. Thanks Dawn for your review on this movie. I have this in my collection and have enjoyed watching it many times over. Sometimes it provides the spark to embrace all of life's difficulties with an air of thankfulness, and reminds us that what we perceive as problems (of gargantuan proportions) are really quite small in relation to the lives of others who have so much less.

    1. I agree. I tend to complain quite a bit... or feel overwhelmed. Then I try to remember the many, many, many people who have more difficult circumstances than mine...and who don't complain. Yes.. the reminder that our problems are pretty small is a good reminder.

  2. What an outstanding movie review, Dawn Rae. You closely mirror my feelings of religion, so without your review I might have hesitated to watch this movie. Now I'm looking forward to seeing "The Letters". More than any other woman in history, I believe Mother Teresa deserves the sainthood she has been given -- for all the reasons you have given -- and I'm very pleased to learn this news.

    1. Oh gosh, now I'm nervous that I've built it up too much. It's just that it touched me so deeply... to think of what she went through as she entered the slums as an outsider. It was just so amazing to me. Let me know if you liked it or not, after you see it. I'd love to know.

  3. An excellent review, Dawn! I don't watch many movies and probably wouldn't have even considered this one, but now I will. I'm glad that it spoke to you personally in so many ways.

    1. Thank you. I normally would not have considered this movie either. I'm glad I did.

  4. A most excellent and personal review Dawn. I haven't seen this movie but will add it to my list of movies to see. It seems to me that you were meant to choose this movie that day.

    1. It seems to me that way too, in hindsight. If you watch it, let me know what you think... good or bad. I'll be interested to know what others think.

  5. Dawn, your review was moving especially because you stated that you are not overtly religious. Your review speaks volumes. I was reminded of the hope I feel everyday despite the world turmoils after reading this review. When you said it's good to know that there are quietly strong generous humble women my heart filled. Mother Teresa remains this inspiration. The glory in life is our service to each other and she lead by example. I will be watching this movie after reading your excellent review.

    1. Barbara... seeing that some people can lead by example is very important and uplifting to me. Watching people live in religious guilt makes me crazy. I hope you like this movie as much as I did. I'm a bit afraid that I'm talked it up too much and others will not find it as ... important... as I did. It just hit me so personally.

  6. These are not usually the type of movies that I'm drawn to, but your review has me quite interested. "The Letters" sounds like movie that I will be moved by. Thanks for sharing your own point of view here.

    1. Totally not the type of movie I'm drawn to either. Thank you for reading and commenting. If you see it.. I hope you let me know what you think of it.

  7. I have not watched "The Letters" myself, but your review leads me to believe it is a much better movie than I would have expected. I've never been particularly fond of the way Hollywood tends to take real lives and build a character, as opposed to telling things accurately. It sounds like The Letters may well be the exception to that rule. From what I know about Mother Teresa, she was a true servant with a very caring heart who would never have sought public attention or praise. I do hate to think that they have publicized her personal letters. That seems like such a violation. In my opinion, personal letters should be just that. Personal letters between the sender and the receiver who clearly have an understanding of who each person is and what they need in that moment. I worry that too much will be read into a particular conversation. It is for those reasons that I would not have watched the show. However, now I do want to see it. Thank you for your review!

    1. Make sure you read the critic link I had provided. There are some folks who thought that it was not a "complex portrayal" of Mother Teresa. And in that, a bit of a "character"... (ie. no more than a stooped over woman). So you may not like it. If you watch sure to let me know what you think.

  8. I appreciate your thorough review since you had no expectations. I have not seen the movie, since I rarely do see a movie, but I have often wondered about Mother Teresa's heart of love that enabled her to serve those who had little or no hope. I believe it must have been the love of God that motivated her.


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