Whatever virtues The Letters may hold are buried beneath heaps of atrocious dialogue, a paint-by-numbers structure, and an offensive, Orientalist depiction of 1940s India. William Riead’s wholly misconceived tale of a year Mother Teresa spent in Calcutta trying to squelch a famine among homeless refugees is the most hackneyed sort of biopic, where figures are written into the screenplay simply to provide historical exposition.
During the opening scene, Father Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow) witnesses a miracle in 1998 India, prompting a talk with Father Benjamin Praagh (Rutger Hauer) about Teresa’s actions among the Indian population half a century prior. The frame narrative device, which the film sporadically returns to, is laid so bare throughout that Riead doesn’t even bother giving Praagh, the audience surrogate, more than a few lines of dialogue. Watching Hauer sit in a chair and merely raise an eyebrow here or there becomes one of the film’s primary sources of amusement, though it’s also a pity considering the actor’s wasted ferocity as a screen presence.
Riead also plants a pair of white journalists in Calcutta to bicker over the relevance of recent political conflicts in India, essentially functioning as running thematic commentary. Bits of dialogue sound like robotic auto-responses, such as “India and Pakistan have officially joined the family of nations. It’s amazing!” and “That’s going to bring about problems, I bet.” References to Gandhi come and go without any meaningful insights regarding his involvement with, or relationship to, Teresa’s endeavors, as if invoking his name automatically lends the film historical credibility.
The Letters rotely depicts Teresa as a troubled woman seeking to alleviate her personal pains by teaching brown people the alphabet and assisting with the development of modern-day colonialist-cum-missionary efforts. Her intentions to “go outside the convent to give help to the poor” are dogmatically portrayed as wholly selfless and sincere acts of courage, assuring the film’s non-reflexive pursuits of Hagiography 101. More unforgivably, the film spends half an hour establishing her background prior to Calcutta, something that surely could have been tersely communicated through either a well-conceived scene or even a few lines of dialogue.
Once Praagh does chime in late in the film, he states, “Makes you wonder where she got the courage”—a ponderous assessment ironically befitting Riead’s preference for minimal wonder and maximal schmaltz. The same goes for depictions of Teresa’s charity work on Calcutta’s streets; local residents murmur with uncertainty regarding her presence before sentimentally being won over by her benevolence before the film’s end. A man named Gomes (Deepak Dadhwal), in particular, forms a friendship with her and offers his home as a place to stay. In The Letters, Calcutta’s tumult is less a mainstay than a contingent problem waiting to be alleviated by an altruistic Westerner.
One sequence—call it a hymnal montage of helping—is so saccharine and manipulative that it recalls a bit from The Naked Gun 33 1/3, in which a musical biopic named Mother, about the life of Mother Teresa, is nominated for the best picture Oscar. In the clip shown, Teresa runs down a Calcutta street swinging a turkey leg, shouting, “I love food, I love food, and I’m really in the mood!” Broad as it is, the irreverent 30-second gag is more perceptive than anything in the entirety of The Letters, a brain-dead slog whose bankrupt aesthetics ironically soil the very legacy it purports to aggrandize.