Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 54 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 3; Language 0; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
…“I believe; help my unbelief!”
The nun known as Mother Teresa during her lifetime was one of the most widely respected and beloved women on the planet. Though she did have detractors who criticized her for substandard conditions in many of the shelters and clinics she oversaw, as well as for her stand against abortion and birth control, most of the public, including India’s, admired and supported her. There were also some who charged she was seeking fame and adulation for herself—but what not even these detractors accused her of was a lack of faith. Yet this is just what director/writer William Riead’s film claims was the case.
Mr. Riead uses as a framing device a 1998 conversation between Mother Teresa’s longtime friend and spiritual mentor Father Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow) and Father Benjamin Praag (Rutger Hauer), the priest appointed by the Vatican to investigate her life as part of the process that will end with her being declared a saint. Father Celeste shares a cache of her letters, even though she had wanted them destroyed following her death. Written over a period of almost 50 years, they reveal her spiritual anguish and torment over her doubts and feeling abandoned by God, even as she carried on her growing ministry of comforting and sheltering the poor and dying.
Thus the film jumps back and forth in time, beginning in 1946 when the Albanian nun first came to India and rose to become a teacher at the Sisters of Loretto’s Calcutta school. The story is suffused with her indomitable determinism to follow what she believed to be God’s will, regardless of what her superiors thought. Believing she had “a call within a call,” she managed to buck the opposition of her Mother general (Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal) and leave her cloistered life to brave the streets to come indirect contact with the dregs of society. Many Hindus also opposed her, believing that she was out to take ad vantage of the poor and dying by converting them. Fortunately she secured the admiration and backing of her bishop and municipal authorities, as well as a growing number of postulants and young nuns, at first from her old order, and then, once she was permitted to form her own order The Missionaries of Charity.
English actress Juliet Stevenson is excellent as the beleaguered nun who will not stay in the safe haven of a girls’ school while people are starving right outside her classroom. The film has possibly received more unfavorable than favorable reviews, but I found it deeply moving. The charge that the film is hagiography is no doubt true, the script containing no hint of the angry charges against her for her obstruction of birth control and abortion, as well as the many complaints of her dictatorial demeanor and ignoring of sanitary measures in her shelters for the dying. Nevertheless her achievements are impressive, even more so now that we know she was wracked with doubt and the resulting anguish. She might have lacked a conventional faith, but she certainly possessed an unconventional tenacity to carry on the works of mercy that benefited so many.
This film is in the Dec. VP.