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Family Movie Review: The Letters (PG)

TheLetters ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewKernel Rating (out of 5): whole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernal

MPAA Rating: PG       Length: 118 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 12+. This faith-based biography about Mother Teresa follows her as she entered India’s slums to help the suffering and poor, and includes some scenes of people starving, people rioting, images of corpses, and a scene where a woman goes into labor (but does so fully dressed). No language or sexual content at all.

The year’s faith-based offerings continue with ‘The Letters,’ a biography of Mother Teresa. The film lacks any kind of narrative tension or dramatic urgency, but it will work as an introduction for tween viewers about the woman and her mission to help the poor.

By Roxana Hadadi

Most faith-based movies this year have focused on high school football, but “The Letters” rejects any kind of that modernity or melodrama. This biography about Mother Teresa serves as an effective, if a little boring, introduction to the woman’s life for tweens or children who may not have been cognizant of her role in the Catholic Church.

Before she died in 1997, Mother Teresa spent years of her life serving the poor of India, venturing into the slums to take care of those who, because of India’s caste system, were considered “untouchable.” In the decades that she did this, she grew more and more famous and inspirational, until after her death the Catholic Church began consider whether they should beatify her, or acknowledge her as blessed and consider her a saint.

That investigation is the framing device for “The Letters,” as Church representative Benjamin Praagh (Rutger Hauer) begins his consideration of Mother Teresa’s life. Did she really, as she believed, hear the voice of God telling her to follow him into the slums and continue his work? Did she, during her time on Earth, inspire others to such a degree that she changed the world? These are the questions Praagh must consider, and so in his investigation he turns to Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow, of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), who was Teresa’s close spiritual advisor. Over the years, the two shared letters back and forth, and it is her writings that van Exem shares with Praagh so he can get a better grasp of the woman, her beliefs about herself and her work, before he makes his recommendation to the Church.

With the handover of her letters to Praagh, the story shifts from 2003 to the 1940s, where Teresa (Juliet Stevenson, of “Diana”) is a teacher and a nun at the Loreto Convent in India. Although she’s humorless and a little no-nonsense, she’s kind and patient, and the female students at the school adore her. Perhaps that’s why the head nun at the school resents her, and why she kicks up a fuss when Teresa reveals that during a train ride to Darjeeling, she heard God leading her to work with the poor. To be able to leave the Convent and do this, she’ll need a special exception from the Church.

After much letter-writing and waiting for the men in the Vatican to decide Teresa’s fate, and so Teresa goes into the slums. She has an uphill battle: Most of the poor Hindu people think she’s there to convert them, and there are some who disapprove of her teaching orphans how to read and write. But over time, she gathers their respect through her kindness, and …

… Well, and that’s it. The major problem with “The Letters” is that in its early scenes, when Celeste says of Teresa “no one knew about her feelings of isolation” and the inner struggles that plagued her, the film fails to shows those in any way later on. Stevenson’s Teresa is curiously flat, so committed to the poor that all other possible aspects of her personality are ignored. Subplots swirl around her – two of her young Indian students join her mission, to the disappointment of their family members; a reporter wanting to write about her work keeps popping up and irritating her – but the film’s failure to voice her own feelings about any of this to other living, breathing people makes Teresa almost absent in her own story.

There are other issues here, too (like how the film gives Teresa a variety of Indian assistants without introducing any of them or giving them stories of their own), but “The Letters” can’t really figure out the story it wants to tell. It jumps from the ‘90s to the 2000s to the ‘40s; it focuses on the conversations between Celeste and Benjamin; it trails Teresa in the slums; but there is no real narrative flow established here. As an introduction to what Teresa believed, “The Letters” works, and could spark conversations with younger viewers about her faith and how children relate to her mission. But as an actual biography of the woman Teresa was, apart from her description of herself as a “pencil in God’s hand,” the movie falls short.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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