A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Letters is a biographical drama about Mother Teresa. Starring English actress Juliet Stevenson as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning nun, the movie explores key moments in Mother Teresa's transformation from a convent nun who taught school in India to a Vatican-approved head of her own order dedicated to the "poorest of the poor." The movie features several scenes of human suffering, including the dying and poverty-stricken, as well as a protest by those temporarily angry that a temple was used as a hospital.
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What's the story?
THE LETTERS frames the story of Mother Teresa's life and ministry by framing it with a Vatican investigation into whether she should be canonized as a saint. Written and directed by William Riead, the movie flashes back to Mother Teresa (Juliet Stevenson) before she held the title of "Mother" -- to when she was a thirtysomething nun in the Sisters of Loreto teaching at a girls' school in Calcutta. Feeling God's call, she asks to be allowed to work with the poor and is eventually granted a papal allowance to start the Missionaries of Charity, the Catholic order requiring vows of chastity and commitment to the poorest of the poor. Mother Teresa's ministry put her at odds with the local impoverished Hindu communities, as well as better-off Catholic Indians who didn't want their daughters to join her order, which demanded a life of ascetic simplicity and complete devotion. The movie also explores Mother Teresa's crisis of faith, which she wrote about in letters to her spiritual mentor, Jesuit Father Celest Van Exem (Max von Sydow).
Is it any good?
While offering a decent chronology of important events in Mother Teresa's ministry for the poor, this drama is ultimately too bland and unremarkable to be as memorable as its legendary subject. Stevenson, although a capable actress, is unconvincing playing Mother Teresa over a 40-year-span (her appearance barely changes), and she doesn't have much more to do than look empathetically at suffering souls and give them a hand -- both literally and figuratively. The screenplay glosses over some significant historical events (like the Indian Partition) and often tells rather than shows how Mother Teresa struggled to make peace with her spiritual doubts.
Watching the film, audiences may begin to wonder whether there are documentaries that depict the legendary nun's story without getting bogged down in stilted dialogue, oversimplified historical events, or the question of her canonization (which is rumored to be slated, although the Vatican has yet to announce a specific date). There are only a couple of scenes in which Mother Teresa seems more human than saint -- once being when she cries that she hasn't seen her mother or sister in years. For a film that's titled for the letters that explore Mother Teresa's doubts and worries, it's a shame there isn't more about her inner life -- and legacy.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about biographical films and the challenges of portraying an extraordinary life. What did you learn about Mother Teresa from this film? How accurate do you think the film is?
Although The Letters takes place across several decades, it zeroes in on specific milestones in Mother Teresa's life. What do you think of this approach (rather than starting at her birth or only show one small time period in her life)?
The movie has many religious themes, but is it also accessible to those who aren't Catholic or Christian? Is Mother Teresa a role model only to people of faith or to all citizens of the world?
- In theaters: December 4, 2015
- On DVD or streaming: March 22, 2016
- Cast: Juliet Stevenson, Max von Sydow, Rutger Hauer
- Director: William Riead
- Studio: Freestyle Releasing
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Great Girl Role Models, History
- Run time: 118 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic material including some images of human suffering
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