'Mother Teresa' shows a life easier than it clearly was

October 04, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Mother Teresa's life was a lot more compelling than what's depicted in "Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor," getting its premiere on the Family Channel tomorrow night.

Not that the film is all that bad: In a rare TV performance, Geraldine Chaplin is appropriately anxious and accepting as the Albanian-born nun who answered God's call by devoting her life to the poorest of India's poor. And the film is imbued with tons of good will, even a few poignant moments that, by themselves, offer insights into the forces that drove this remarkable woman.

The film, however, makes Mother Teresa look like any number of other men and women who devote their lives to the poor. That portrayal may be in keeping with her penchant for self-deprecation, but it makes for a TV-film-by-the-numbers that seriously shortchanges her.

Mother Teresa was never comfortable with the idea of having a film made about her life. Documentaries were OK, interviews were OK, but the Calcutta nun had no use for dramatic license.

Unfortunately for her, in a moment of weakness a few years back, she authorized French writer Dominique Lapierre to pen just such a movie. She later recanted that permission, but too late; even before her death last month, the film, which concentrates on the early years of her order, from roughly 1946 to 1950, had been completed and a date set for its broadcast.

Lapierre and director Kevin Connor should be lauded for keeping Mother Teresa's feelings in mind; it's hard to understand claims by her order, the Missionaries of Charity, that she was "hurt and humiliated" by the film.

But being Mother Teresa couldn't have been as easy as the film indicates. The worst adversities she faces here come from a stuffed-shirt archbishop and an autocratic mother superior, both whom insist she -- as well as God -- would be better served by having her stay in a convent than work among the residents of Calcutta's slums.

At least they take a while to be won over. That's not true of her Hindu neighbors in Calcutta, distrustful of any Christian; the Calcutta authorities, convinced Mother Teresa has a hidden political agenda; a wrecking crew, ready to bulldoze the entire Calcutta slum; and religious zealots outraged that a Catholic hospital is operating alongside a Hindu shrine. All are converted to her point of view with amazing ease and speed.

Even more damaging to the film's sense of reality is the simple fact that it's hard to make healthy people look like they're starving. All these street urchins and old men seem to have full stomachs and good teeth -- especially when contrasted with the occasional footage of real poor people and real slums.

Some isolated moments do play out as worthy of Mother Teresa's legacy. An early encounter with the sick, in which then-Sister Teresa cradles a dying woman in her arms until hospital authorities relent and take her in, is truly heartbreaking. And a re-creation of one of her finest moments, in which she hears God tell her to serve the poor through a toothless beggar's whispered pleas for water, speaks volumes about where this woman found the strength to do what she did.

"Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor" is comforting and even inspirational, but it's never better than ordinary. Her protestations to the contrary, Mother Teresa deserved the extraordinary.

TV movie

What: "Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor"

When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.-9 p.m.

Where: Family Channel

Pub Date: 10/04/97

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