“The Letters,” written and directed by William Riead, is a slow movie, but perhaps it has to be slow. Because it is a movie about obedience, and Christian obedience is a slow dance, the steps learned one faltering movement at a time. The foundation on which the movie is built is Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s sixty–yearlong struggle with despair, a struggle she revealed only in letters to two confidantes. All the while she was building an order of nuns and going with them out into the city slums to care for the sick and dying, she was facing her own dark night of the soul. She felt abandoned by God. She could not find God’s face, though she prayed faithfully and faithfully followed the call she had received six decades earlier. She was obedient to God’s voice, even when the voice had gone silent — silent, at least, for her.
The strength to obey God’s call to serve the poor, in the spiritually barren years when she could no longer hear the call, came from her stubborn obedience.
We do not learn this from Mother Teresa, played here by Juliet Stevenson, but from the priests involved with the investigation of her cause for canonization in the years following her death. We first meet Father Benjamin Praagh (Rutger Hauer), the postulator — the one assigned to guide her cause for canonization through the judicial processes of the Roman Catholic Church — when he is called to the bedside of an Indian woman who claimed healing through the intercession of Mother Teresa. His investigation leads him from India to England, where he meets Father Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow), an elderly cleric and longtime friend and confidante of Mother Teresa. Exem reveals the nun’s interior battles and finally entrusts a box of Mother Teresa’s letters to Praagh. It is Exem who tells the life story of the founder of The Missionaries of Charity, beginning with her time as a teacher and principal at the Sisters of Loretto convent school in Calcutta.
The school was an oasis of calm and plenty in the midst of chaos and hunger. The then Sister Teresa watched people starve and suffer from behind the safety of her classroom windows. When she heard God tell her to go and serve the poor, living as one of the poor, she asked her Mother General for permission to say “Yes” to this summons. She did not want to leave the Loretto Sisters or be relieved of her vows. She wanted permission to serve as a Loretto sister outside the walls.
This was a curious request from a cloistered nun, the first of many unexpected requests she made of people in authority. What follows is the story of how many times through the years that she had to pray and ask and wait. And wait. And pray. Mother Teresa was firm: She would follow God’s call and remain obedient to the authority of the Church.
Honestly, watching someone pray and ask and pray and wait is not the stuff of movie magic. “The Letters” would be better cinema if Mother Teresa had defied the Mother General, the local bishop and Pope Pius XII himself and gone off to the slums, a free spirit in a sari. But Mother Teresa was free as only a person obedient in right order can be free. As the movie unfolds, we understand that the strength to obey God’s call to serve the poor, in the spiritually barren years when she could no longer hear the call, came from this stubborn obedience. She had early learned that prayer and patience were part of the work to which she was called. And she had early learned to work, and keep on working, in the darkness as well as in the light.
“The Letters” is not a great movie, but it tells a great story, a story that should be told. There’s no sex, no nudity, no profanity, no intergalactic warfare and not a single car chase. It’s suitable for everyone.