Thanks to the miracle of modern pharmacology, I am generally even-keeled, but when I hear $200,000-per-year government administrators referred to as “public servants,” I have to reach for the Lexapro. Because on my scale, when it comes to public service, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, a/k/a/ Mother Teresa, is the barometer against whom all volunteering is measured. She was visiting the sick and bringing meals to the hungry long before it became a de rigueur activity on a college application.
Juliet Stevenson (“Bend it Like Beckham,” “Mona Lisa Smile”) brings the diminutive Albanian nun’s uncommon life to the big screen in the film, “The Letters.”
Years ago, I wrote a joke about Blessed Teresa’s tell-all book in which she revealed her greatest scandal: “At my lowest point,” I wrote that she wrote, “I happened past a rack of brochures that said ‘take one,’ and took two.” That was prescient. It turns out that she was a copious writer and those writings reveal a much different woman than we have come to revere. One who is, — dare I say and her beautification notwithstanding — more human. More like us.
We know of her ongoing doubts and feelings of abject isolation through a cache of letters she wrote to Fr. Celeste van Exem, played here by Max von Sydow (“The Exorcist,” ironically) and shared posthumously with Fr. Praggh (Rutger Hauer), the postulant investigating her possible sainthood. The two offer minimal introductory and transitional commentary.
Over six decades, Blessed Teresa persevered in the worst slums of Calcutta where, as she says, she wasn’t always wanted but was needed. Indeed, both skeptical villagers and her own (former) convent secretly hoped for her failure — the former because they thought she was proselytizing the children and the latter because they thought she was poaching novitiates for her new order, “Missionaries of Charity.”
This “icon of compassion,” as she was known, eschewed acknowledgement of any kind, considering herself merely “a pencil in God’s hand.”
There is no clever third-act twist in “The Letters,” nor are there any vampires or superheroes, which means, at best, this cable-channel-quality biography will appeal to a niche audience. Its subject deserves better.
Blessed Teresa’s service challenges us to engage directly and individually. I wasn’t planning to, but who knows, she needs one more miracle for sainthood.