Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

CNS photo/MPRM Communications
Juliet Stevenson stars in a scene from the movie "The Letters." The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

New York

Spiritual struggles of Blessed Teresa portrayed in ‘The Letters’

By CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE | Published December 10, 2015

NEW YORK (CNS)—As the elaborate procedures that precede the Catholic Church’s decision to declare someone a saint amply demonstrate, genuine holiness can be difficult to pin down or identify in real life.

When it comes to capturing sanctity on screen, the elusiveness of a person’s interior union with God becomes even more apparent, even when that bond is testified to by extraordinary outward achievements.

There’s also a significant aesthetic challenge to consider: As every reader of poet John Milton’s Bible-based epic “Paradise Lost” soon realizes, evil is—on the face of things, at least—far more interesting than goodness.

Partly that has to do with the disordered mindset resulting from original sin. But it’s also undeniable that wickedness often expresses itself in dramatic events and gestures whereas persevering fidelity to God’s will—although it can be inspired by a sudden, even sensational, moment of conversion—is a lifelong process to be pursued day in and day out.

The launching of wars, the trampling down of enemies, the liquidation of vast numbers of innocents; all these deeds have the built-in quality of spectacle. Hours of solitary prayer, the patient acquisition and perfection of the virtues; although admirable in themselves, these activities, by contrast, are likely to strike even a well-disposed observer as yawn-inducing.

So the filmmakers behind “The Letters” (Freestyle), a biography of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata (1910-1997), have set themselves a daunting task. All the more so, since the posthumous publication of their subject’s correspondence—the documents from which the movie takes its title—startlingly revealed to the world that she suffered for decades from a potentially paralyzing sense of God’s complete absence.

The woman born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia (in what was then the Ottoman Empire), thus found herself in a paradoxical position. As the world’s most saintly celebrity, she was a figure committed to—and acclaimed for—spiritually inspired works of mercy, many of which made no sense whatever from a purely worldly perspective. Yet within her own soul, her faith had become almost entirely a matter of abstract theory.

How she carried on in the face of such desolation might provide a rich subject for the most psychologically perceptive of novelists. Expressing her dilemma in a compelling way for moviegoers, however, proves too much for writer-director William Riead—and for his film’s star, Juliet Stevenson.

Riead frames his story via a retrospective conversation between Fathers Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow), the famed nun’s spiritual director, and Benjamin Praagh (Rutger Hauer), the church official charged with investigating her life with a view to her possible canonization.

But Riead uses this narrative device awkwardly, with the result that the facts surrounding Mother Teresa’s courageous ministry—as well as her tenacious spiritual struggle—are alternately spoon-fed to the audience through dialogue and dramatized in a way that fails to spark interest.

Riead focuses primarily on Teresa’s momentous decision to leave the Sisters of Loreto, the cloistered teaching order in which she began religious life, and dedicate herself instead to the work of serving the most afflicted of her adopted city’s slum dwellers.

He successfully conveys the obedience with which she submitted her personal convictions about her altered vocation to the judgment of the church—her patience being further tried by the persistent but ultimately futile opposition of her former superior, played by Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal. Yet Riead otherwise fails to delve below the surface.

Given its inspiring subject matter, and the absence of any really problematic content, this appreciative but poorly handled profile makes suitable fare for all but the youngest viewers.

The film contains some tense scenes of conflict and potentially disturbing medical situations. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG—parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

“Creed” (Warner Bros.)

This imaginative, and surprisingly gentle, reboot of the “Rocky” franchise takes viewers back to the series’ Philadelphia roots as the legendary former heavyweight champ (Sylvester Stallone) coaches the illegitimate son (Michael B. Jordan) of his long-deceased adversary-turned-ally, Apollo Creed. Director Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Covington, is wise enough to touch lightly on all the familiar notes of the 1976 original, thus reminding his audience that he respects the past even as he reinvents for the future. The script’s underlying message is that, no matter what the circumstances, the cherished old values of self-sacrifice and discipline can prevail. That outlook may, in the judgment of many parents, extend the movie’s appropriate appeal, making it acceptable fare for mature adolescents. Bloody physical violence, fleeting rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

“Victor Frankenstein” (Fox)

The familiar story of the titular mad scientist (James McAvoy) and his unholy creation is retold from the point of view of his traditional assistant, Igor (Daniel Radcliffe). Afflicted with a deforming malady, Igor is an abused and despised circus performer in Victorian London who harbors secret, self-taught medical knowledge until his kindly future patron, recognizing his outstanding intellect, rescues him from virtual captivity. As Frankenstein spars with a religiously zealous police detective (Andrew Scott) who’s determined to thwart his revivification schemes, Igor pursues romance with a trapeze artist-turned-socialite (Jessica Brown Findlay) he knew—and admired from afar—in his days of misery. While the tension between faith and science is one of the themes halfheartedly pursued amid the film’s steampunk-style spectacle, the representatives of the two sides in the dialogue’s debate are equally unbalanced and unconvincing. Despite committed performances from the leads, director Max Landis’ horror-flecked drama winds up feeling as cobbled together, lumbering and directionless as the monster that lurches through its climactic scenes. Possibly acceptable for mature teens. Considerable stylized violence, an implied, but benignly viewed, premarital encounter, a single crude term, a few mild oaths, a fleeting reference to homosexuality. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

“The Good Dinosaur” (Disney)

A warm and fuzzy take on the human-dino dynamic of the “Jurassic” films, this 3-D comedy-adventure makes wholesome and hilarious entertainment for the entire family. Director and co-writer Peter Sohn gleefully reworks history in proposing that the asteroid which may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs never happened. Instead, they evolved in an anthropomorphic fashion, talking and acting just like humans. A young Apatosaurus (voice of Raymond Ochoa) is separated from his family, and must find his way home, with only a feral Neanderthal boy (voice of Jack Bright) as his companion. A few intense moments may upset the very youngest viewers, but all ages will be inspired as our plucky hero rises to his challenges. The film is preceded by “Sanjay’s Super Team,” directed by Sanjay Patel, about an Indian lad who comes to respect his father’s devotion to Hinduism. Parents will appreciate the short’s affirmation of faith but may want to combat any potential confusion with an age-appropriate primer on the difference between even wisdom-graced speculation about the divine and revealed truth. A few scenes of peril. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I—general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG—parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.