The Letters | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published December 9, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 10, 2015 at 10:08 a.m.

You have to hand it to writer-director William Riead: Few filmmakers possess the vision required to reduce the story of someone as outsize as Mother Teresa to 114 minutes of mind-numbing lifelessness. If this movie had an iota less energy or drama, it would be a still photo. Do yourself a favor — before seeing it, skip the soda and ask the concession clerk to fill a family-size popcorn bucket with coffee. You're going to need it.

Juliet Stevenson portrays the religious icon. She looks nothing like her character, so one of the first signs of the production's ineptitude is that its creators didn't use makeup or prosthetics to achieve the slightest degree of resemblance. Apparently they believed their subject's familiar blue-and-white robes would suffice to transform a British actress into a shriveled Albanian-Indian nun. They don't. Even sloppier: Stevenson's character undergoes virtually zero change in her appearance while aging from 35 to 70. Perhaps we're expected to interpret her perpetually youthful complexion as a sign of divine intervention.

What little story there is concerns Mother Teresa's efforts to petition the Vatican for permission to leave her teaching gig in a school for privileged girls and do missionary work outside its walls, where the sick and starving fill the streets. You wouldn't believe the red tape. While we await word from Rome, MT informs anyone who will listen (no vow of silence for her) that she originally planned to do missionary work but became a nun instead. The one thing we never hear is why.

Eventually, of course, she receives the green light and hits the mean streets of Calcutta with a vague plan to be of service. Initially, distrustful Hindus slam doors in the nun's face. I won't spoil it for you, but a single act endears her to the locals. To call that act a lazy plot device would be an insult to lazy plot devices.

The only surprise in The Letters is the precise service Mother Teresa feels called to offer — namely, providing a place where the hungry and suffering "are allowed to die surrounded by loving people." I'd always assumed she received the '79 Nobel Peace Prize for more than giving people a place to go to their eternal peace. The script, not surprisingly, skirts the controversial issue of her baptizing large numbers of dying Hindus and Muslims without their knowledge.

After her death in 1997, the Church commenced vetting MT for potential sainthood. Rutger Hauer plays the Vatican's fact- checker. He pays a visit to Father Celeste van Exem, with whom MT had corresponded. Since this priest is portrayed by Max von Sydow, I secretly hoped he'd answer, "The power of Christ compels you" after Hauer asked him how he'd forced himself to read all that self-absorbed mail.

No such luck. Their dialogue is excruciatingly stilted, limited mostly to allusions to the titular missives. Neither character actually ever reads from them. Rather, van Exem paraphrases passages in which MT repeatedly confesses to feeling God is not within her. I felt shock and sadness. Not because Mother Teresa experienced a spiritual crisis, but because actors as accomplished as Hauer and von Sydow have been reduced to such amateurish treacle.

The film's writing, direction and acting are not alone in blowing. Ciaran Hope's overwrought score sounds like a mashup of music from hokey old biblical pictures. I swear that 114 minutes have never felt more like an eternity. Talk about an ungodly mess. If a duller, less inspired film hit the cineplex this season, it would be a miracle.