St. Teresa of Calcutta at the movies

The life of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta has been dramatized onscreen three times in the last 20 years. The most recent version, “The Letters” (2014), starring Juliet Stevenson, is the first version of her story theatrically released in the United States, and perhaps the most familiar to American viewers — though it’s far from the best.

“IMAGE"

The 2003 TV movie “Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” starring Olivia Hussey, was originally a two-part miniseries on Italian television. In 2006, a heavily edited and muddled 110-minute version was released on DVD by 20th Century Fox. Eight years later Ignatius Press released a “complete, unedited” three-hour version on DVD under the title “Mother Teresa.”

I prefer the three-hour Mother Teresa to “The Letters” — but by far my favorite dramatization of Blessed Teresa’s life is the first, and, alas, the least well-known: “Mother Teresa: In the Name of God’s Poor” (1999), starring Geraldine Chaplin. 

“IMAGE"

All three are pious, hagiographical portraits, and unsurprisingly overlap substantially. The decisive events in each begin in 1946, nine years after Blessed Teresa’s final vows as a Sister of Loreto — the year she will receive her fateful “call within the call.” 

We find her in Calcutta, teaching geography to schoolgirls at the Loreto convent school. There are references to Gandhi, Hindu–Muslim conflict, and social upheaval in India in the last days of British rule (independence will follow in 1947).

The “call within the call” comes while Blessed Teresa is taking a train to Darjeeling. Returning to Calcutta, she is convinced that Jesus has called her to work with the poorest of the poor.

“IMAGE"

Teresa makes a highly unusual request for an indult of exclaustration allowing her to work outside the cloister as a nun. She will not, however, consider leaving religious life.  

Although her superior, Mother Cenacle, is against it, Archbishop Ferdinand Perier of Calcutta petitions the Vatican on her behalf — a petition unexpectedly granted and later extended. Working in the slums, Teresa encounters resistance from the Hindu populace, but presently wins supporters, particularly as she teaches children to read. Eventually she is joined by former students who wish to share her work.

Finally, with the help of her spiritual director, Father Celeste van Exem, she petitions the Vatican for the founding of a new religious community, the Missionaries of Charity — an extraordinary dream that becomes a reality in 1950.

Among Teresa’s first moves is the conversion of an abandoned Hindu temple to the goddess Kali into a hospice for the dying and destitute, Kalighat Home for the Dying. A Christian woman making such use of a Hindu sacred place leads to mob protests and threats of violence, but the work continues.

So much of the story — between five and 10 years — is common to all three films, along with the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize speech, which appears as a flash-forward epilogue in “God’s Poor” and “The Letters.” The 2003 Olivia Hussey film, “Mother Teresa,” goes much further, particularly in the Ignatius Press DVD.

After relating the first half of the story in flashback, as a priest from Rome evaluates Mother Teresa’s work in 1950 for the inquiry into her petition for a new community, the second half relates the half-century that follows: a hospice for sufferers of leprosy, an orphanage, the scandal that arose from a large donation from a con artist who later misused Mother Teresa’s image and more.

“The Letters” takes the flashback device further, telling its entire story in posthumous flashback, from the perspective of her spiritual director van Exem (Max von Sydow) and the postulator for her cause for canonization, fictionally named Father Praggh (Rutger Hauer), as they discuss her life. They particularly focus on the depths of spiritual darkness and anguish revealed in her letters to Archbishop Perier and Father van Exem, some of which were made public about a decade ago and published under the title “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.”  

Only “God’s Poor” eschews flashback, taking a linear approach to its story with occasional first-person voiceover narration from its protagonist.

As a window into differences among the three films, consider the crucial “call within a call” experience of that 1946 train ride to Calcutta.

“The Letters” doesn’t depict the “call” at all. Breaking a cardinal cinematic principle — “show, don’t tell” — the film relates the experience through the running dialogue of Father van Exem and Father Praggh.

That, alas, is typical of “The Letters’s” lack of curiosity and imagination. “The Letters” is generally content to follow the bare events of Mother Teresa’s life, interspersed with the two priests gravely discussing her career and her spiritual suffering.

Astonishingly, the spiritual suffering itself and her whole interior life — highlighted by the film’s very title, and ostensibly the obvious rationale for a new Mother Teresa film after the revelations in “Come Be My Light” — are almost entirely limited to the priests’ discussion. It doesn’t open up the character earnestly played by Stevenson at all.

“Mother Teresa” does better with the call, managing a cinematic flourish highlighting the interiority of the experience. The scene opens with St. Teresa in the Calcutta train station, surrounded by a sea of insistent beggars superimposed over Teresa’s harrowed face.

One beggar in particular, lying on his mat, catches her eye. Kneeling beside him, she hears him whisper, “I’m thirsty” — and, as she kneels there, the rest of the crowd vanishes, and an overhead shot depicts the station empty except for Teresa and the beggar. The moment ends, the crowd returns, and Teresa moves on, but in the beggar’s whisper she has heard Christ saying, “I thirst.”

Now consider the moment in “God’s Poor.” This treatment is more naturalistic and less dramatic; mounting a train, Teresa spots the beggar standing in a crowd with hand outstretched, looking at her and mumbling, “I’m thirsty,” over and over. Moved with pity, she tosses him a coin from the train-car steps — but an urchin absconds with it before the beggar can move. The train starts to roll, and she is torn away as he goes on repeating, “I’m thirsty.”

Why is the second treatment better than the first?

The scene in “Mother Teresa,” with the protagonist kneeling in solitude beside the inert beggar, invites us to admire Mother Teresa’s compassion. The scene in “God’s Poor,” with Mother Teresa watching as the man mumbles his thirst and the train rolls away, invites us to empathize with her helplessness, and thus to feel her deep need to do something. The repetition of the words, too, highlights the ongoing, unresolved urgency of the need.

This, too, is typical of these two films. Hussey’s Teresa in the 2003 film is always sure, always in control, and nearly always gets the last word. Chaplin’s Teresa in “God’s Poor” makes mistakes, gets overwhelmed and learns unexpected lessons on the road to becoming the saint of Calcutta.

“God’s Poor” excels in other ways as well. It’s the only one of the three to deal with caste, for example, and the tensions caused by upper-caste schoolgirls joining Mother Teresa to care for untouchables.

The characters here have lives and memories longer than the events depicted. Confronted with the request for exclaustration, Archbishop Perier says matter-of-factly, “This isn’t the first time a nun has asked to leave the convent.” He recommends telling her to inquire again in a year, predicting that she’ll be over it by then.

None of these films is perfect or definitive; there’s plenty of room for a new Mother Teresa movie. The trajectory of these three films, though, isn’t reassuring. A screenwriter wanting to tackle the subject would do well to watch all three — and then figure out how to do something entirely different.

Steven D. Greydanus is an award-winning film critic and the creator of DecentFilms.com.