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"THE LETTERS"
(2015) (Juliet Stevenson, Max von Sydow) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A nun wants to leave her convent and position of teaching privileged girls in order to care for the poor, sick and dying people in the slums of Calcutta.
PLOT:
It's 2003, and Father Benjamin Praagh (RUTGER HAUER) has arrived at a Catholic retirement facility to talk to Father Celeste van Exem (MAX VON SYDOW) about the possible canonization of the late Mother Teresa. Beyond her decades of tirelessly working for the poor, sick and dying, her image has been attributed to one miracle, and one more is needed to get the process moving forward, something with which Father Praagh has been tasked to investigate. And thus he meets with Father van Exem to discuss a number of letters Mother Teresa wrote over the years to her spiritual advisors, private commentary about her spiritual agony and feelings that God had abandoned her despite her serving Him.

The film then rewinds to 1946 when Sister Teresa (JULIET STEVENSON) works in the Loreto Convent in Calcutta, with India on the verge of becoming a sovereign country after 200 years of British rule. Working under Mother General (MAHABANOO KOTWAL), she teaches privileged local girls, such as Dinsha Sahu (PRAVISHI DAS), while simultaneously being dismayed by the conditions of the poor, sick and dying just outside the convent walls. After hearing the word of God telling her to serve them, she asks for a suspension of her duties at the convent so that she can do just that. Despite Mother General's protests, she's granted that request, and starts caring for those in need.

At first, many locals are against her for fear that she's trying to convert them and their children to Christianity. But her selfless work soon draws supporters, some of her former students, such as Shubashini Das (PRIYA DARSHINI), as her aids, and even British radio reporter Graham Widdecombe (MARK BENNINGTON) who wants to interview her about her work. But she's not in it for the fame and instead does what she can to help those in need in the slums of Calcutta.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
You have to give kudos to those who selflessly give their time, blood, sweat and tears, and sometimes their lives, to those who are less fortunate than they are. I'm not talking about people who simply donate money or organize fundraisers -- although they're certainly to be thanked for such help. No, I'm talking about those who have boots on the ground and are elbow deep in working directly with those who are destitute, abused, sick or dying.

While you can't exactly say you hope they're happy doing such work, you certainly wish they find fulfillment in such labor. And if you know that those who take advantage of such people will be spending some serious time with old Beelzebub, you can hope that the often unheralded helpers are headed the opposite way.

But what if such people are tormented in one way or another while doing God's work? And what if that held true for one of the most famous to ever grace our planet, a woman who had the world's admiration and certainly an express ticket through the Pearly Gates? Yes, I'm talking about Mother Teresa.

She was the nun who worked for decades in the slums of India helping the poor and sick, founded the Missionaries of Charity that spread her work among thousands of other helpers in more than 100 countries, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Yet, she had doubts in her faith, something she shared with her spiritual advisors via handwritten letters that were supposed to be destroyed. Instead, they were kept and eventually showed up in the book "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light."

That work has now inspired a movie about the woman, her work, and her faith. "The Letters" would seem to be ripe for being a slam-dunk in terms of a fascinating character study of an intriguing woman who wasn't above reproach regarding certain other controversies about her.

Sadly, this picture from writer/director William Riead is anything but fascinating. While it might be reverential, it's arguably the most dramatically inert film I've seen in a long, long time. For drama to work, regardless of the story or characters within, there has to be conflict. Without that, the result is akin to watching paint dry under ideal conditions.

To be fair, there are tiny moments of meager conflict, such as when the locals in Calcutta don't take kindly to having a Christian woman (Juliet Stevenson playing Mother Teresa) in their midst following Britain pulling out of India after 200 years of rule. However, that goes away quickly, as does a later protest surrounding the protagonist being granted use of an old and long-abandoned Hindu temple for her hospice center. That stops just as fast as it started when a local man tells the others to quit and disperse.

What's left is the nun's superior (Mahabanoo Kotwal) not wanting to grant her permission to leave the convent and the teaching of rich girls to go out in the streets and help the poor. Even that turns out to be a minor obstacle, though, thus leaving the film to rely on Mother Teresa's inner conflict. Alas, what should have been the film's strength and most intriguing element is completely bungled.

Instead of us seeing the inner turmoil the nun was experiencing, we hear about it after her death through a discussion between two priests (Max von Sydow and Rutger Hauer) regarding her possible canonization. One was privy to the aforementioned letters, and talks about that to the other, resulting in various flashbacks across various years.

Yet, aside from the general remarks that she felt spiritually abandoned, we don't hear any additional details (not even any passages from those letters, if memory serves correct), nor do we see the woman experiencing them. In doing so, the film commits the cardinal movie sin of telling rather than showing, and that simply doesn't cut it for holding our attention through the pic's two-hour runtime.

Abandoned by the script, Stevenson can't do much with her character beyond playing her as humble, soft-spoken and sometimes looking tired in her quest to help the unfortunate souls around her. And that's about it. Von Sydow and Hauer are trapped in a room briefly talking about her, while a number of other performers play characters who show up here and there, but likewise can't do much with their thinly drawn roles.

Those simply looking for a film giving kudos to Mother Teresa might not mind the problems, but for anyone who realizes what makes a good -- or even mediocre -- pic click, and easily recognizes when that's missing, "The Letters" is bound to disappoint, especially considering the absolutely wasted and bungled potential. Quite possibly the most boring and dramatically inert movie you'll see all year, this one rates as just a 3.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 1, 2015 / Posted December 4, 2015


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