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Mechanical 'The Letters' is a procedure-heavy attempt to share the story of Mother Teresa
Juliet Stevenson as Mother Teresa in "The Letters." - photo by Josh Terry
THE LETTERS 2 stars Juliet Stevenson, Rutger Hauer, Max von Sydow, Priya Darshini; PG (thematic material, including some images of human suffering); in general release

When it comes to charity, its hard to think of a more iconic figure than Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun who dedicated her life to the poor of Calcutta. The Letters is an attempt to immortalize her, but William Rieads film gets too bogged down in bureaucratic hoops to capture the essence of her lifes work.

The Letters is told in flashback. In 1998, Father Benjamin Praagh (Rutger Hauer) has been tasked with investigating Teresa (Juliet Stevenson) as a candidate for sainthood. He visits one of her closest confidants, Father Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow), and their conversations launch us into the origins of Mother Teresas story.

We get snippets of Mother Teresas early life, but the majority of her story takes place around the time she received her call to the work in the late 1940s. At the time, she was teaching at a convent in India, and her impulse to go out and work with the poor in the neighborhood violated convent policy.

But Teresa is convinced that God wants her to follow in Christs footsteps, and The Letters follows her from the convent out into the slums, where she rallies support and eventually founds the Missionaries of Charity.

Her work made her one of the most celebrated figures of the 20th century, but The Letters is far too preoccupied with the bureaucratic minutiae of her journey. She receives resistance from her superiors but corresponds with the Vatican to get permission to leave the convent. Once cleared, things go well out in the slums, but she has to file for extensions, and eventually applies for the creation of a special congregation to accommodate her mission.

Far too little time is spent on her work with the needy, and far too much is spent on conversations about policy and procedure. In short, Rieads effort is more mechanical than spiritual and misses the heart of what makes Mother Teresa so beloved in the first place.

This emphasis on procedure may emerge from a life that, according to the film, lacked in cinematic tension. Mother Teresa had to battle to establish her congregation and worked tirelessly, but The Letters never really gets intense outside of a clash where some local Hindus take offense to Mother Teresa setting up a hospice in an abandoned temple.

Stevenson does a good job with what she is given, trying to emote Mother Teresas humble passion for the work. Hauer and von Sydow are welcome faces, but their characters seem a bit superfluous to the effort, as their scenes feel more expositional than anything else.

The letters referenced in the title refer to the correspondence Mother Teresa maintained with her spiritual superiors, including Father van Exem. Ultimately they are used by Father Praagh as proof of her worthiness, as they reveal the deep spiritual battle Mother Teresa waged that drove her passion. We have to take his word on this, since we dont actually get to hear from the letters themselves. Presumably they were to be confidential, which is understandable, if unfortunate from a cinematic perspective.

Essentially, The Letters feels like a first draft of what could be a much better film with a few adjustments. It gets the facts down, but now it needs to streamline the excess and get to the heart of its story.

"The Letters" is rated PG for thematic material, including some images of human suffering; running time: 114 minutes.