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Inside The Vatican

January 2016

The Letters (2015)

William Riead’s film based on the life of Mother Theresa is both a ponderous and at times a laborious work of art that had me making comparisons to Akira Kurosawa’s monumental film IKIRU thought by many film critics  to be one of the finest films ever made. I do not believe this film as it exists in it’s final form would have been made by a major  studio without major changes to it’s overall structure. However this may very well be the film’s resoundingly high mark in that  you don’t see films of this type or quality very often any more. As a director working from his own screenplay, Mr. Riead used the book MOTHER THERESA: COME BE MY LIGHT as the backbone to the overall production. What this book helped to detail  was that Mother Theresa through a series of letters written to her spiritual advisor, the Belgium Jesuit priest Father Celeste van Exem, suffered a spiritual crisis that spanned nearly fifty years in which she no longer felt the presence of God in her life. Of course this is when she did her greatest work, administering to the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, perhaps the worst in the world. How she dealt with this is explored in the film in explicit, and at times heartbreaking detail and why she is revered all over the world. She became a celebrity of sorts without ever welcoming such a thing and always stressed that if reporters wanted to write a story, then write it about the crushing poverty that surrounded her. She was merely a pencil in the hand of God as she would say and against all odds succeeded because she was convinced she had been instructed by God to do so. At first looked at with tremendous suspicion by the people she was attempting to help because they were Hindu and she  was Christian, they could not understand why someone would be doing such acts of charity without an ulterior motive to convert them. She always said the greatest poverty in this world was to be alone, unloved, and she loved unconditionally. She may not have been wanted but she was desperately needed by a culture pervaded by a crushing caste system and unimaginable poverty. She also battled her own order, which insisted she must remain true to her vows as a cloistered nun, which forbade her from leaving the confines of the convent. This eventually lead her to found the Missionaries of Charity, which was remarkable in and of itself, because the Catholic Church had not authorized a new order in over 100 hundred years. 


The backbone of this film really rests with the extraordinary performance of Juliet Stevenson, who physically really looks nothing like Mother Theresa, but is transformed into her through great acting, costuming and makeup. The film spans about fifty years and the performance rendered is quite remarkable with Ms. Stevenson capturing her voice, diction and movements beautifully after having spent hours studying various documentaries and newsreels and talking to people who knew and worked with her. I feel that she will not only be nominated for an Academy Award but that she will win the Oscar in February, though there is currently no Hollywood buzz surrounding her at this time. Ms. Stevenson is truly an actor’s actor, having spent most of her career on stage in England, with periodic work in films such as TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY and NICHOLAS NICKLEBY. Max Von Sydow as Father van Exem has a much smaller role in what is really a wrap around section of the film as he is interviewed byFr. Benjamin Praggh, who is played by Rutger Hauer, a priest sent by the Vatican to investigate the cause for her canonization. A special mention should be made to Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal as the Mother General who vehemently objected to Mother Theresa leaving the cloister of the Loreto Convent in Calcutta to work in the slums which surrounded them. She does a brilliant job in portraying what is in essence the heavy of the piece, often times with no words at all. 

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