There’s something about watching tough guys break down in the movies that’s damn near irresistible. Whether it’s Jack Nicholson bawling while talking to his vegetable of a father in Five Easy Pieces, Marlon Brando lamenting failed opportunities in a taxi cab in On the Waterfront, or Jimmy Stewart dissolving into tears at the end of The Naked Spur, the contrast between these men’s hardened exterior and their underlying vulnerability makes for uniquely powerful cinema, even if, the Anthony Mann picture excepted, they often feel like crude emotional manipulations that lead too neatly to the moment when these virile men can assert their thespian credentials in the form of a latent sensitivity.
In Letters to Father Jacob, a very different movie from the abovementioned trio, the lead-up to the tough guy—or, in this case, girl’s—moment of vulnerability is even more programmatic, but it’s no less affecting for that. Klaus Härö‘s movie charts the unlikely relationship—both in terms of plausibility and as promising narrative material—between the eponymous blind old priest (Heikki Nousiainen) and Leila (Kaarina Hazard), a spiteful, physically imposing female prison inmate who, at Jacob’s request, is pardoned and comes to work for him at the now abandoned rectory where he lives. Leila’s chief task consists of reading the “intercession letters” that arrive daily in the mail to her employer and consist of pleas for the father’s prayers, and writing the responses that Jacob dutifully delivers to his petitioners.
Frustrated by what she views as the utter futility of the enterprise and disdainful of Jacob’s motives in using these correspondences as a dubious means of personal validation, Leila begins sabotaging the project—throwing away letters and eventually chasing away the mailman for good. Alternating wide-angle long shots, which rather academically accentuate the physical distance between the two characters in the cavernous rectory, and a series of medium close-ups which more successfully register the impassivity and hint of suppressed anger in Leila’s face and the sadness and weariness of Jacob’s, Härö charts the uneasy relationship between the two characters in slow, measured cadences.
What keeps the film’s delicate balance from tipping entirely over into the conventional schmaltziness virtually guaranteed by its premise is both the lack of insistence on the character’s backstories, which, until the final sequence, are only subtly hinted at, and more importantly, Leila’s impassivity and utter meanness toward her benefactor. “I’m not going to be one of your charity cases,” she coolly informs him before packing her bags to leave, but after an aborted suicide attempt and a moment of hesitation, she winds up staying on and the film is free to give in to the sentimental tendencies it had scrupulously avoided for the first 50 of its 74 minutes. But while it’s easy to distrust the movie’s manipulations (which include a sudden change in character from impudence to generosity, a delayed reveal of backstory, and an overuse of Dani Strömbäck’s mournful piano score), Härö combines these hackneyed elements in such a way as to overcome intellectual objection and, as we watch the tears streak down Hazard’s face, it’s as difficult to reject their emotive force as it is to deny the impact of Nicholson’s or Brando’s waterworks in their classic performances that may be juicier, but are no less affecting than the plain-faced Finnish actress’s more modest and considerably less sexy breakdown.