Almost thirty years ago Olivia Hussey played the most venerated woman of all time, the Virgin Mary, in Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth.” Now she portrays the most revered woman of the twentieth century in the reverential, Italian-made English-language production Mother Teresa.
Hussey’s earnest performance brings to life Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s determination, simplicity and idealistic faith, from her early growing absorption with the desperate condition of the proverty-stricken and dying in the streets of Calcutta through the difficulties that faced her efforts to establish a new congregation and its various projects, and beyond.
Though shot in English, the film has been substantially edited for the English-speaking world from the original version exhibited in Italy; at 110 minutes, it’s a whopping 40 percent shorter than the 180-minute Italian original. (Is it a mark of these edits that the film’s IMDb.com page credits an actor playing Jesus, who nowhere appears in the English version? Or did that not make the cut in the Italian version either?)
Perhaps the edits are part of the reason for the rather choppy, episodic feel of the story, which presents vignettes from the beati’s life without always providing adequate narrative context to establish characters or situations. Glib, superficial dialogue doesn’t help; speeches and conversations play like a series of sound bites, with no real attempt at psychological depth or insight.
The filmmakers don’t shy away from some of the controversies and difficulties that dogged the Missionaries of Charity, from a scandal involving money and corruption to charges of child trafficking. Still, the film is never less than an overtly hagiographical homage to its subject, the Hallmark Channel version of Mother Teresa’s life. At the same time, it’s an homage with as little to trouble or challenge Blessed Teresa’s secular admirers as her Catholic followers, or less.
For example, the dialogue includes an instance of Mother Teresa’s sometimes perplexing comments about religious affiliation, which at times seemed to border on religious indifferentism (“A Christian should try to be a good Christian, a Muslim should try to be a good Muslim, a Hindu should try to be a good Hindu”). Yet we never see the foundress or her sisters quietly baptizing dying Hindus and Muslims in their care — a practice that has been the subject of some controversy, especially among Mother’s secular and non-Catholic critics.
Likewise, while the film includes a brief excerpt from Blessed Teresa’s 1979 Nobel Prize acceptance speech at Oslo, it includes her comments about smiling, along with general comments about the culture of death, but omits her specific and forceful denunciation of abortion. (Nor does it touch on the notable story behind the story: Apparently Teresa originally planned to decline the Nobel honor, but the Pope himself commanded her to accept it for the greater good, to use the opportunity to serve Jesus. Alas, John Paul II does not appear in the film.) Mother’s lifelong condemnation of divorce and contraception are likewise passed over in silence.
Despite its limitations, Mother Teresa is pious, inspiring viewing, most worth seeing for Hussey’s effective portrayal of the beati’s dogged personality, idiosyncratic leadership and administrative style, and total self-abandonment to serving Jesus in the poorest of the poor.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.