The Story of Mother Teresa
In the film “The Letters,” which tells the story of Mother Teresa (starring Juliet Stevenson as Mother Teresa), that line above is her answer to an angry Hindu man who wants her to stop helping the people in his slum because she is Christian.
It shows just a small glimpse of how the mind of Mother Teresa worked: she saw people’s needs, and she saw her ability to meet those needs — and that was all she needed to know to act.
“The Letters” is one of those rare Hollywood gems — a modest-in-heart, plainly dressed but beautiful island in a sea of tent pole, money-hungry exorbitance and celebrity-focused opulence — that reminds me of such classic movies as “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” starring Ingrid Bergman (the 1958 film where she is a tenacious missionary in China).
This film stirred my soul, and I can’t recommend it enough. I’ll explain why in the “Entertainment Value & Worldviews” section below, but first let’s look at the Parental Guidance Content.
[Note: after you read my review for “The Letters” below, if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy or my podcast Aslan’s Paw. Both seek to crack open the surprising treasures of Christian belief — the things that Western society has forgotten, ignored, or never encountered — with the help of logic, literature, film, music, and one very unsafe Lion.]
Parental Guidance Content at a Glance for this PG Rated rated film…
Violence/Gore/Scary Content: Mother Teresa works with many sick people, and in a few scenes we see dying people with sores or dead bodies in the streets, but none of it is graphic. It stays easily within its PG boundaries. There is a riot in one scene, but no violence is depicted; it is only hinted at. Yet the movie retains emotional power, and it proves that you don’t need graphic, shocking realism when depicting violence or death to create a sense of the gravity of what people are enduring.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: None.
Why Care About a Film’s Worldview?
Before I get into my usual “Worldviews” section, I’d like to explain something about why I include a “worldviews” section at all. Whether we realize it or not, the things that so profoundly affect us in movies often come straight from the worldview that lies behind the movie.
And no one has articulated this so well as screenwriter and author Brian Godawa in his book Hollywood Worldviews:
Great movies are like incarnate sermons. Watching sympathetic heroes work through their experiences often has more impact on my life than a rigorously reasoned abstract argument. Watching Eric Liddell run for God in Chariots of Fire proves to me that living for God without compromise is worth far more than what the world provides. Reliving the dilemmas of Captain John Miller and his men in Saving Private Ryan reminds me to be grateful for those who sacrificed for the precious freedom I enjoy. Movies like these force me to reevaluate my life so that I don’t squander it on self-seeking pettiness. I remember some movies better than most sermons, probably because they put flesh onto the skeleton of abstract ideas about how life ought or ought not to be lived. (17)
And then, in this insightful passage in the same book, he demonstrates how all of us rely on philosophy and worldviews in our day-to-day lives far more than we realize:
…the late Francis Schaeffer often pointed out that philosophy, though considered irrelevant by many people, was often a pertinent driving force of culture. The ideas generated by academic thinkers filter down through the high arts into the popular arts and are thus consumed by the masses, often without self-conscious recognition of their philosophical nature. Everybody operates upon a philosophy in life, a worldview.
People may not call their philosophical beliefs by their academic names of metaphysics (reality), epistemology (knowledge) and ethics (morality), but they operate upon them nevertheless. When a person says that someone ought not to butt in line at a movie theater (ethics) because everyone knows (epistemology) that “first come, first served” is the way the world works and that “what goes around, comes around” (metaphysics), then knowingly or unknowingly she is expressing a philosophy. When a kid watches the animated movie Shrek, he probably doesn’t know about Carl Jung’s theories of psychological types and the collective unconscious, but he is ingesting them nonetheless through those characters and that story adapted after the Jungian model. (92)
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the film “The Letters” and its worldviews:
Entertainment Value and Worldviews of ‘The Letters’
“The Letters” succeeds as an entertaining film because it begins with a unique vantage point: a priest who is petitioning the Catholic Church to canonize Mother Teresa as a saint interviews another priest who corresponded with Mother Teresa through letters during her entire ministry.
And, as the priest who wrote letters with her reveals what was in them, we learn a stunning fact: Mother Teresa experienced periods of intense spiritual darkness and even alienation from God throughout her entire life — a “dark night of the soul,” only her dark night lasted a lifetime. Everything was not perfect in her relationship with God, in other words. She had spiritual pains and struggles just like anyone else.
The film introduces this puzzle in the beginning, and as the plot commences to tell the story of her ministry — mostly how it began and how it gained such favor in India and eventually the world — we always have the question in the back of our minds: why did she have the spiritual darkness?
The film addresses this question, though with caution, without throwing pat answers at you, while also showing a vivid, beautiful, deeply moving portrait of who Mother Teresa was, what he
r personality was like, and how her ministry to the Untouchables in India got started.
Besides the jaw-dropping performance of Juliet Stevens as Mother Teresa, the film features other world-class actors — Rutger Hauer (“Blade Runner,” “Batman Begins”), Max von Sydow (“The Exorcist,” “Shutter Island”) — and interesting musical cameos. “The Letters” borrows excerpts from the Hans Zimmer soundtracks of “Gladiator” and “Thin Red Line.” These quotations work surprisingly well.
A Complex Christian Worldview: Showing Others the Gospel vs. Telling Them (Or Should It Be a Humble Mix of Both?)
The worldview of “The Letters” is not hard to pin down. Yes, it’s obviously Christian — it’s telling the story of Mother Teresa from the perspective of the Catholic Church as they decide her case for canonization — but it also brings in the Hindu culture, and within that context the film presents a more subtle depiction of the Christian faith in action. In this film we don’t see the faith-hero standing on the street corner preaching (though I have nothing against sincere, motivated-by-love street preachers). Instead we see the faith-hero showing people what the love of Christ means instead of telling them.
But this does not mean that everyone liked her.
In scene after scene, Hindus become angry with Mother Teresa because they think she is just there to convert them. One can’t blame them. Some of these scenes happened just after the tragic Partition had occurred that saw over 500,000 Indians slaughtered — one of the worst tragedies in human history — and Indians were extremely suspicious of any foreigners.
But she assures them repeatedly that she has no intention of converting anyone. Indeed, we do not see her open the Bible once or say a single word about Jesus in front of the Hindus she helps. The film leaves the whys and hows of this open to interpretation, though I find it a little implausible that she never preached the Gospel overtly to anyone, especially when one reads her letters and sees her zeal for sharing the Gospel with others. But if you’re a Christian, you might see the film’s depiction of her avoidance of noisy Gospel-preaching as a good example; Christians should demonstrate the Gospel with their actions first and foremost.
In other words, worry more about walking the walk instead of talking the talk, and then let the Holy Spirit draw people to Him as people see you show Christ’s love to them in earnest, sincere ways that have no ulterior motives for conversion.
And from a certain angle, that general line of thinking is hard to refute. When I read the New Testament, it’s clear to me that all Christians are meant to have the same radical concept of love, humility, and service toward others as Mother Teresa had. We are all meant to display a radical love-in-action toward others — not high horse moralism that perches itself on ivory soapboxes but never bothers to come down into the suffering of others and give them a no-strings-attached helping hand.
However, if you’re a non-Christian or a relativist Christian who does not like the exclusivist claims of Christ (and, yes, Jesus Christ made shocking exclusivist claims — though I would argue that everyone has a set of exclusive beliefs whether they realize it or not), you might see the lack of overt preaching in the film as an exhortation to fall in step with postmodern pluralism and never actually tell others the Gospel message that Jesus commanded all His followers to preach with boldness.
All of that is sort of a side-debate, of course, because a crucial truth from Mother Teresa’s life, and in this movie, was that her love was genuine. Although she was zealous for the absolute claims that Jesus made about Himself, she also had a deep love for others that, as far as we can tell, truly had no ulterior motives. She really wasn’t there to convert others for the sake of her own spiritual ambition or for the sake of the Church’s membership count. Her heart’s cry was to meet the desperate needs of poor, suffering people because their pain was very real to her. Their spiritual beliefs did not change the fact that their suffering broke her heart into pieces whenever she saw it.
Perhaps if the pain of others was more real to us, and not an abstraction, our motives for serving others in Christ’s name would, like Mother Teresa, become purer.
There is a great line in the film, in which Mother Teresa says: “I have walked and walked until my legs ache. I keep thinking about how the poor must ache in body and in soul while looking for food, for help. This work is far more difficult than I had imagined it to be. Never in all my life did I know there was such suffering in the world as I have seen here.”
Conclusion: a Multifaceted Jewel of a Film
The topic above is just one question that this film quietly, subtly addresses with its complex Christian worldview.
Frankly, the film tackles many, many other questions. It examines the raw spiritual suffering that Mother Teresa experienced, and it shows that even the most celebrated saints have imperfections in their relationship with God. They’re much more like you and me than we realize. (And I suspect that Mother Teresa was more keenly aware of this than anybody, which was why she was so averse to receiving any public recognition for her work.)
The film also looks at how jealousy can rise up in others who serve alongside people like Mother Teresa; one of her fellow nuns tries to cause her ministry to fail. The film never says it outright, but it strongly implies that his nun was either jealous, full of guilt because she didn’t have Mother Teresa’s fearless, radical love toward the poor, or a mix of both.
“The Letters” also gives us a glimpse of Mother Teresa’s love for simple, unadorned prayer between the soul of a believer and God. Max von Sydow’s character says this about Mother Teresa: “Belief in prayer was the foundation of her faith. She believed that prayer was food for the soul, and if you prayed deeply your prayer would be answered.”
I’m still just scratching the surface with everything above. The film has many layers and little surprises. It even has a superb cover of Snow Patrol’s “Run” by Leona Lewis — an unexpected but surprisingly fitting song for this film (in the closing credits).
All in all “The Letters” was a challenging but nourishing feast for the heart and mind: it convicted and prodded the conscience as often as it encouraged and comforted the soul — much like Mother Teresa herself.
My rating for “The Letters”: [usr 9] (See my notes below on the rating scale.)
[NOTE: If you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis or U2, please be sure to read our editor Kevin’s new blog Stabs of Joy, which explores 18 C.S. Lewis books and 13 U2 albums to answer one question: how do we really experience Christ’s joy — and not just talk about it — during seasons of sorrow and difficulty?]
Note about my rating system for the movie’s film craft and entertainment value:
1 star = one of the worst movies ever made (the stuff of bad movie legends), and it usually (not always) has below 10% on Rotten Tomatoes
2-3 stars = a mostly bad movie that has a handful of nice moments; it usually falls between 10-30% on Rotten Tomatoes
4-6 stars = a decent movie with some flaws, overall. Four stars mean its flaws outweigh the good. Five stars mean equal good, equal bad. Six stars mean it’s a fairly good movie, with some great moments even, that outweigh a few flaws. A 4-6 star rating usually means it falls between 30-59% on Rotten Tomatoes (but not always).
7-9 stars = a rare rating reserved only for the best movies of that year; and a film must have a Fresh Tomato rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes to be given 7 stars or higher, with a few exceptions (if I strongly disagree with the critics).
10 stars = one of the best films of all time, right up there with the all-time greats (i.e. Casablanca, The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Episode IV, Indiana Jones, etc.).
If you are planning on seeing a movie soon, please consider purchasing your tickets online through our affiliate link above with Fandango, a high-quality vendor for online movie tickets. This will allow us to keep our site online and continue providing you with quality reviews.