Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Letters to Father Jacob. (2009) Klaus Härö

This is a moving little Finnish film, wonderfully made, that reminds me a bit of Babette's Feast, or perhaps the recent Lourdes.

It's about Leila, a woman who has spent twelve years locked away behind bars. She's suddenly pardoned and due to be released and she can't quite figure out why. She argues with the warden that she's supposed to be a "lifer," that she shouldn't be going anywhere, that she was destined to live out her days in jail. She doesn't have anywhere to go anyway, except the one place the warden suggests: she should live with an elderly retired priest named Father Jacob in a remote parsonage in the Finnish countryside. There she will care for his needs and live a life of quiet in the old home.

When she arrives she is clear about what she will or won't do. "I don't do windows," is one of her first phrases to Jacob. She's surprised that Father Jacob is blind, and so old, and that the only thing he wants, the only job he actually desires from her is to read the letters he receives on a daily basis in the mail and dictate as he gently responds.

The letters are from parishioners Jacob has known throughout the course of his ministry. They are petitions for prayer from those who struggle with all kinds of things -- drunken spouses, sick children, depression, and more. They are sent because folks know Jacob is an honorable man; they know he will intercede on their behalf, and if their story is relayed, they know the holy man's words will reach God's heart.

Leila, agnostic but perhaps thinking herself an atheist, humors Jacob and reads the letters. The notes, she believes, can't be better than religious hope -- there's no God to answer Jacob's prayers. But in small moments she is touched by his relentless compassion. He answers every letter he receives and petitions God for help on a daily basis. She sees his dedication even if she thinks it's all for naught.

A third character, the mailman, arrives on bicycle with the letters. Leila waits outside for him every day, gathering the envelopes and sometimes throwing a few out. You might think this is where the love story is going to take place, Leila and the mailman, the mailman and Leila. But Letters to Father Jacob isn't a film about earthly love. He's scared of her. He knows she's an ex-con and immediately puts up walls, avoiding her at all costs, bicycling away from the parsonage when he sees her waiting for him out front. He even goes so far as to stop bringing the mail. When she catches him in a criminal act and nearly beats the fuzz out of him (Leila is no small woman), things in their relationship go from strained to total avoidance.

But Leila is of a hardened type that is well adjusted to these kinds of relationships. She's probably created them a few times before. Constantly unimpressed, sometimes brash and too much to the point, she doesn't joke, barely laughs, and puts up with others rather than enjoying them. Perhaps she has not enjoyed any day with or without anyone else for a long, long time. She's had time to think about her crime during those twelve years incarcerated, and the thinking and constant guilt have eaten away at her soul. She functions in her day to day routines, but any joy of living was sucked out of her a long time ago.

Kaarina Hazard as Leila was nominated for a Jussi, the Finnish equivalent of the Oscar, and she is perfect in this unglamorous role. Heikki Nousiainen as Father Jacob won the Jussi for the Best Actor award. The two together, the caring and compassionate old preacher and the uncaring and dispassionate ex-con, end up digging thoroughly into each other's backgrounds and psyches, and each are going to learn something valuable about their own self as well as the other.

A miracle or two will take place before the end of the film, but we can't be certain how much it changes Leila's outlook on life. This might be more like real life than any miraculous event that suddenly changes everything about her. We all see miracles all the time, but most will go unnoticed.

With its deep, lovely visuals of the interiors and exteriors of the abandoned church they live by, this is one of those quiet films of subtle nuance that you really want to see on the big screen. But unless you live near a big city you probably won't get that chance. That's a sad fact, but as luck would have it the DVD was just released earlier this month, and the film is available through Netflix. One way or another, I highly encourage you to track it down.

My friend Nathan from Cinema Truth wrote an excellent review that sheds light on the film's Bressonian qualities. It is posted on my buddy Jeffrey Overstreet's site, Looking Closer. I highly encourage you to delve more into Letters to Father Jacob -- that enlightening review is posted Here.

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