Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor. The Television Movie



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Geraldine Chaplin.

Mother Teresa has become an icon of compassion and care, a woman driven by faith to improve her world. Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor, chronicles how she went from cloistered nun to global heroine.

Covering the era from the last days of the British Raj to her Nobel Peace Prize win in 1979, In the Name of God's Poor starts with Sister Teresa (Geraldine Chaplin) as a simple geography teacher in the Calcutta* Catholic school and convent she is cloistered in. The chaos of Partition forces the nuns to go into the city, where Sister Teresa sees not just the horrors of violence but the horrifying poverty and death all around. The stress and agony she witnessed firsthand is not helped when she goes on Retreat. A beggar at the railway station calls out to her, "I'm thirsty", echoing the words of Christ in Matthew 25:35 (I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink). She now has the conviction that Christ has called her to work among the poor and dying to alleviate their pain.

Telling her spiritual guide Father Van Exem (Keene Curtis) that she has heard "a call within The Call", she makes the shocking request to be allowed to leave the convent but remain a Loreto nun. To everyone's shock, the Vatican grants her request. With that, she goes to Moti Jihl, a mass slum near Calcutta. She is initially not welcomed as a woman, a white woman and a Christian among the residents. However, by working to teach the children to read and eventually standing up to government officials on their behalf, she wins them over to her side.

She not only wins over the locals, but some of her former students, enough for her to apply to create a new order, the Missionaries of Charity. Again, defying logic, the Vatican grants this request. More opposition comes from the Hindu community, shocked and appalled that a former rest home for pilgrims has become her de facto hospice. Cynical war reporter Harry Harper (William Katt) is not easily won over, but the story is too irresistible. Finally, when her efforts are rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she goes to Oslo, albeit reluctantly, to continue advocating for the destitute and dying.

Sometimes, some people become so iconic, so revered, that it becomes hard to see the person behind the legend. In the Name of God's Poor does not create a Mother Teresa who is thoroughly saintly and aware from the get-go. More often than not, Teresa is frightened but quietly stubborn. What Teresa has is a mix of quiet determination and confidence that God will somehow provide, though she knows not how. 

For example, Teresa has taken a bold step to apply for release from cloister with no guarantee that she would be allowed to remain a Sister of Loreto. In fact, it would be more likely that she would have to choose to either remain within the convent or leave as a lay person. While not hiding her fear, Teresa opts to hold to the mission she believes God has given her. The reaction Chaplin shows when Father Van Exem reads the letter granting her request is one that reveals Teresa's relief and confidence in the rightness of her choice. 

Over and over, In the Name of God's Poor has a set pattern. Teresa makes a decision on some issue: going to Moti Jihl, opening the hospice on Hindu sacred ground. Indian Catholic Church officials are unwilling to believe this simple nun can get what she wants, with on Father Van Exem championing her. The local community fervently opposed to Teresa's actions until they see the results and they are won over. Mother Teresa gets her way.

Perhaps this is how it was. I don't think this is a flaw, but I can see how some might think it gets repetitive. On the whole though, In the Name of God's Poor works because of this repetition because it guides viewers in following her story. 

In terms of performances, Geraldine Chaplin does not have Mother Teresa's Albanian/Indian accent, but she does make up for it by showing a Teresa whose faith carries her despite her fears. Chaplin does well when delivering expositionary dialogue, such as when she tells someone that as a child, she thought the various faith communities in Albania prayed to the same god, so she found nothing odd about using a Hindu shelter for her missionary work. This is clearly against Catholic and general Christian theology, but by stating that this was her belief as a child, Teresa can be absolved of heresy. 

In many points, we see that Mother Teresa has many converts, but not in the faith but in action. Over and over, by quietly doing the work, Teresa wins those who initially opposed her. That should be a model for all who advocate for change. At one point, a police commissioner tells her that something is not his responsibility. "Then make it your responsibility," she retorts. 

At one point, as she speaks to the older, cynical Harper, she does show a flash of anger. As he takes a Christopher Hitchens-like critique over how she does not tackle the root causes of poverty but merely treats the symptoms, she counters by saying that perhaps her actions would inspire those in power to do that. At that point, she does say that she does get angry, but that she also has to forgive. "I forgive, but I do not accept," she states.

In smaller roles, Curtis' Father Van Exem as her advocate and spiritual adviser brings a gentleness and quiet strength to his performance. Katt does well as the reporter who is initially not interested in her story until he sees her work. He is the closest to a counter voice to the legend of Mother Teresa. 

Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor was released a month after now-Saint Teresa's death though obviously made before her death. As a film, it is entertaining and respectful, with good performances all around. It has moments of clear symbolism that are obvious without being overwhelming. For example, there is a moment when a dying Brahim is brought into the Missionaries of Charity hospice he opposed. He is placed under a sign that reads "Body of Christ", a clear connection between the Catholic Christian faith and the Brahim's status. 

Many times does Mother Teresa tell someone, "Come and see". That is a good way of looking at both the world and Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor.


* Calcutta was renamed Kolkata in 2001. I used the city's name at the time of both the events and the film's production.


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