(REVIEW) For someone as famous and (nearly) universally beloved as Saint Mother Teresa, it’s surprising that she hasn’t had a proper cinematic treatment yet in the way that someone like Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. has.
Most of the offerings have been smaller films like “The Letters” from 2014 or documentaries like last year’s “Mother Teresa: No Greater Love.” You’d think that her story would be Oscar gold. Perhaps Hollywood is just too uncomfortable with her strong pro-life stance and faith-based films haven’t come of age yet where they can do the kind of cinematic treatment of her story that one would wish.
“Mother Teresa & Me” is the latest film to try to fill that gap. It does not succeed. But Mother Teresa’s story is so powerful that there is still stuff of value for those who do watch it. The film fails because it tries to make her more relevant to modern audiences, but is too burdened by a mountain of cliches and bad theology to truly succeed.
“Mother Teresa & Me” follows two parallel stories — one of Mother Teresa’s mission from God to serve the poor and needy in India; the other a young Indian-British woman named Kavita with a secret connection to Mother Teresa who’s life is turned upside down when she finds out she’s pregnant.
It’s difficult not to be moved by Mother Teresa or her story. Any cinematic representation of it is going to have some power to it. Her certainty of her call from God to help the poor, her stubborn determination to save them and give them dignity in dying and her standoff with the mob trying to burn her House of The Dying to the ground are all true and hard to not be affected by.
The movie is also gently pro-life with Mother Teresa and pro-life advocates getting to have equal time to make their case for their views, and the movie having a fairly happy ending as far as pro-life advocates are concerned. But pro-choice arguments are treated with deep empathy and respect as well. It’s probably as balanced a take on the issue as you’re likely to ever get in a movie. While it doesn’t always work, it’s hard to say anyone else has done a better job.
There are also cinematic touches in the film which add to the power of the story as well. Mother Teresa’s relationship with her priest is portrayed charmingly, funny, full of deep affection and mutual respect even with their differences — such that I wish we saw more of it. Some of the shots, particularly in the dark and with Mother Teresa’s mother portrayed, are deeply artistic and moody in the right ways.
That said, the movie falls apart by trying to do too much — and too much of the wrong things, which undercut most of its strengths from being developed enough to leave much emotional impact.
One of its biggest failings is its main conceit, which is to parallel Mother Teresa’s story with that of a fictional modern-day young British-Indian woman who discovers she’s pregnant and has to decide whether she’s getting an abortion. Cutting back between both of these stories doesn’t give either one time to really develop. Just when we are getting invested in one story, we get swung to the other and have to become re-invested all over again. Much of Mother Teresa’s story has to then be told rather than shown, either by the characters in modern day or by Mother Teresa explaining what she’s feeling to someone.
I’m not even actually clear what was gained by having a modern-day supplement to Mother Teresa’s story. Much of how they discuss Mother Teresa’s controversial legacy are already covered in the segments of Mother Teresa’s own time, such as when she debates with the female school children about abortion.
In addition, the characters in the modern setting are shallow archetypes that speak and act in cliches rather than developed characters who say interesting things or make interesting choices. And the emotional moments of the past and future moments don’t parallel or build on each other most of the time. As a result, you’re left with rebuilding emotional connection each time the movie switches time periods.
The other biggest failing is the treatment of Mother Teresa’s doubts. The movie tells us over and over again, through Mother Teresa’s own words and through the words of the other characters in both time periods, that she lost her faith but pretended she still had it so she could continue with her work to serve others. This is treated as a sign of her great compassion and a reason to admire her — turning her into something of a secular saint that lies about her faith for the greater good.
This is, to put it as kindly, a creative interpretation of the facts. We know from Mother Teresa’s own letters that at times she wrestled bitterly with doubts about God, particularly when she lost her feeling of deep emotional connection with Him and ability to hear His voice that she had before she’d left for her work in India.
Yet, it’s hard to find a Christian or atheist who seriously interprets what she wrote as giving up on her beliefs. It was the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, a senior Missionaries of Charity member, who put Mother Teresa’s cause up for sainthood. He first published her letters in the book “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light,” seeing them as a testament to perseverance regarding her faith despite her doubts.
Atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, criticized her for foolishly holding on to her faith despite these doubts. Scott Simon of NPR pointed out that it sounds much more like a rejected lover than it does an unbeliever. After all, she was still sending these letters to her confessor priest. Few people who read the letters that I can find interpret her as a secret apostate, but rather, someone who persevered in believing in and serving God despite it all.
This isn’t a trivial point. Claiming that Mother Teresa’s doubts are tantamount to apostasy perpetuates extremely harmful lies about faith and doubt with real-world consequences. It causes believers to squash doubts in themselves and their children or friends rather than explore them because they believe it leads to apostasy. It causes doubters to feel like they have no place in the religious world even if they want to, because they don’t have a faith that looks like the way it’s “supposed to.”
The reality is exactly the opposite. Most of the time, Christians report that times of doubt lead to even stronger faith as long as it’s done in the church community: 81% of active members say that they got stronger due to their doubts, but only 34% of those who are not active members say it increased their faith. Non-active members have the highest level of losing their faith entirely at 20%. This means that the worst thing that can happen to a person of faith is to feel like they can’t share what they’re going through within their church community.
If you’re a fan of Mother Teresa and just want to see the beauty of her life onscreen, even with a movie that’s deeply flawed, you might enjoy this film. Otherwise, you’re better off reading her letters (or watching the “No Greater Love” documentary) while we all wait for a Mother Teresa movie that is truly worthy of her.
“Mother Teresa & Me” is currently in select theaters for one day only on Oct. 5.