The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Letters

Mother Teresa was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, as well as an icon to Catholics (and many non-Catholics) everywhere. Her work with the poor was revolutionary within the church, making her one of the most important historical figures of the 20th century. After her death, it was revealed that she secretly felt abandoned by God and experienced a crisis of faith that lasted for decades. The Letters is a new biopic about Mother Teresa, and if she were here to see the film, she would probably say, You made this piece of garbage about me?

Juliet Stevenson plays Teresa as a young nun. Safely cloistered behind convent walls, she looks out at the poverty in Calcutta and feels God's call for her to help. After gaining permission, she makes her way into the slums, where the Hindu people initially greet her with skepticism. Teresa wins them over by teaching the local children to read and write, helping tend to the sick, and delivering a baby. Her work is so inspirational that some other nuns decide they want to help. Thus begins her own congregation, the Missionaries of Charity. In a framing device, Teresa's longtime spiritual adviser (Max Von Sydow) tells a Vatican investigator (Rutger Hauer) about the letters he received from her over the years, in which she expressed emptiness and lack of total faith.

The Letters may well be the most dramatically limp film of the year. We are repeatedly told that Teresa had a crisis of faith, yet there's nothing here to actually show it. Her scenes consist of either fighting with church officials for the right to continue her work, or being out among the poor helping. She never shows a trace of the inner turmoil she's supposedly experiencing. The movie simply has no clue what to do with its most intriguing story point a woman who comes to doubt God after believing she's been called by Him. The modern-day sequences are just as bad. Hauer and Von Sydow sit in chairs and talk. That's the extent of their scenes together. The flat dialogue both actors are forced to deliver makes it sound as though they're reading Wikipedia entries about Mother Teresa and it's just about as exciting as that, too. Given the amazing work this woman did, you'd think The Letters would be a lot more enthralling than it is.

Writer/director William Riead has made a thoroughly flat and artless movie. The Letters is staged, blocked, and photographed with all the inelegance of an especially cheap Lifetime TV movie. It looks terrible, and has a pace that could generously be described as somnambulant. Riead whose filmography contains such mega-obscure fare as Scorpion and Island Prey - allows scenes to drag on and on, well past the point of necessity, and he often wastes time depicting irrelevant details, such as the formalities exchanged by two high-ranking church officials. Visually, he relies on an amateurish point-and-shoot style that is dull to look at. Perhaps most annoyingly, Riead has his actors say their lines at half-speed, needlessly belaboring every single moment in the film. If the cast spoke at normal speed, The Letters would be shorter by half.

Juliet Stevenson is an esteemed British actress with such credentials as Bend It Like Beckham, Truly Madly Deeply, and Being Julia. Working from a poor screenplay, she has no way of suggesting either great faith or a lack thereof on Teresa's part. Instead, Stevenson fumbles to maintain an accent while schlepping through listless scenes with no payoff. Hauer and Von Sydow are similarly wasted.

The Letters has good intentions. It wants to celebrate an important woman who did so much for so many, while struggling to come to terms with her own private issues. Incompetent filmmaking robs her life story of its meaning, though, resulting in a test of the viewer's patience. It's hard to believe they made a movie this boring about someone who was so inherently fascinating.

( out of four)

The Letters is rated PG for thematic material including some images of human suffering. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.

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