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‘The Letters’ review: Mother Teresa as familiar as ever

Juliet Stevenson plays Mother Teresa in "The Letters."

Juliet Stevenson plays Mother Teresa in "The Letters." Credit: Freestyle Releasing

PLOT The early life of Mother Teresa.

RATING PG

CAST Juliet Stevenson, Max Von Sydow, Rutger Hauer

LENGTH 1:58

BOTTOM LINE Slow, clunky and not terribly informative.

Mother Teresa has become so synonymous with goodness, charity and self-sacrifice that we frequently invoke her name to be sarcastic. As in: Who are you, Mother Teresa?

She’s a one-dimensional figure, at least in the public imagination, which raises the question of what a biopic like “The Letters” could hope to achieve. It claims to focus on a little-known fact about the world-famous Catholic missionary — that her personal correspondence revealed an ongoing crisis of faith even as her good works flourished with the help of a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. That’s a surprising and compelling idea, or at least it would be if “The Letters” at all helped us understand it.

Written and directed by William Riead, “The Letters” stars Juliet Stevenson as Mother Teresa, whom we first meet in the 1930s as a nun teaching at a school for the well-born daughters of India. Outside her convent lay the slums of Calcutta, filled with garbage, starving people and corpses. The grim poverty beckoned to her the way big cities might beckon farm kids: Against her Mother Superior’s wishes, she sneaks out to walk the shanty-lined streets and feed the poor.

Much of the film concerns Theresa’s navigation through the Catholic Church’s bureaucracy to obtain permission to perform charitable services. After a series of petitions, meetings and written proposals, she is granted exclaustration — meaning she can work outside her cloister — and then allowed to start her own organization. This insider’s view of Catholic red tape has a certain fascination, as far as it goes.

Most of the film, however, unfolds exactly as you’d expect: Theresa wins over suspicious locals by teaching their children to read, recruits former students into her ranks and steadily becomes the sainted figure we know today.

So, what of those letters that supposedly inspired “The Letters?” Rutger Hauer and Max Von Sydow appear as two Catholic higher-ups who meet to discuss her beatification and quote from her writings. They tell us she felt “abandoned by God,” but we never actually see it. Stevenson is quite good in her limited role, but this movie gives her little to work with. In the end, “The Letters” shows us only the Mother Teresa we already knew.

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