conjures up images of abject poverty--massive slum areas where daily
routines all revolve around basic survival. Much of the reputation
comes from worldwide recognition of Mother Teresa since Calcutta is
where she began her life's work. I visited Calcutta in 2009 and got a
glimpse of its extremes--numerous families living on its streets
without any prospects of escaping poverty. Like much of India, Calcutta
is diverse, a mixture of colors and unforgettable smells that mix
blossoms with a urine scents... a chaotic mass of shops, vehicles, and
Amidst the chaos lies
a quiet sanctuary. Called the Mother House, it serves as Mother
Teresa's final resting place and a small museum that chronicles her
life and work. The order demonstrates extreme reverence and respect,
prayerfully placing flower blossoms on Mother Teresa's tomb daily. Down
the road is her Mission orphanage, managed by sisters who wear the same
sari that Mother Teresa is noted for. Their friendly demeanor
communicates extreme compassion and kindliness.
It adds to the
curiosity about Mother Teresa, but I thought I had gained as much
knowledge as possible by visiting her home and orphanage, reading about
her, and seeing some archive footage. I was wrong.
sophisticated recommendation engine suggested I'd likely enjoy the 1986
documentary Mother Teresa, and it was
100% accurate. Directors Ann and Jeanette Petrie filmed Mother Teresa
and members of her Missionaries of Charity
over a four year period, primarily using direct cinema technique with
minimal interviews. While most documentaries about Mother Teresa feel
relatively "distant," it's apparent that the filmmakers achieve a
comfort level with their subject that offers a far more insightful and
The Petries provide
historical context and Richard Attenborough (director of Gandhi)
narrates, but the primary gems come from Mother Teresa herself.
Perpetually in motion and continually offering service to the poor, the
disabled, and sickly of all ages, Mother Teresa remains remarkably
cheerful and talkative. She connects with people of all backgrounds;
the film clearly shows why she was considered a "living saint" for
decades...and why she was beatified in 2003, a necessary step towards
official sainthood in the Catholic Church.
Despite being loyal to
the church, Mother Teresa appears to be an outlier...a radical--quite
different from more traditional Catholics. On a trip to Darjeeling, she
became aware of her calling--to leave the convent and live among the
poor in order to serve them. Quite an extraordinary undertaking for
such a small and unassuming woman. In fact, one of her fellow novices
remarks that she always thought that Mother Teresa was quite
"ordinary." In that observation lies one of her greatest strengths--her
determination to serve in complete humility and meet the needs of
society's most unwanted people.
Her order began
in Calcutta with a handful of sisters who were once her students in the
convent and expanded over the decades of her life to over 120
countries. They strive to meet the needs of their communities, so the
Missionaries of Charity run hospices, homes for people suffering from
leprosy, orphanages, soup kitchens, etc.
remarkably captures the spirit behind these basic facts. It follows
Mother Teresa outside Calcutta to Guatemala City and the South Bronx as
she demonstrates that poverty exists everywhere, and often the worst
cases of poverty are caused by an absence of love. She claims this is
even more dire in New York than it is in her more familiar terrain.
You gain access to her
teachings and concepts in most striking ways--by observing her daily
actions. When visiting a San Francisco center for her Mission, she is
most displeased. It's FAR too comfortable for the order--mattresses and
springs are tossed, wooden pews are hauled away, and the hot water
system is denied. The sisters do not need these things. They have taken
Mother Teresa's vows of poverty. They must live like the people they
are to serve; otherwise, they could not relate to them properly.
At one point, she
insists on rescuing disabled children in Beirut while Israel is heavily
bombing the city. When officials plead for sanity, she calmly states
that she is praying for a "cease fire" and is confident that this will
allow her to get the children the following day. The Bishop and civil
authorities have doubts, but it's no surprise how this unfolds.
I see a number of
other documentaries about Mother Teresa, but I seriously doubt that
they can surpass the power of the Petrie's project. This film doesn't
simply tell us about Mother Teresa; it SHOWS her in action.
We gain a first hand
understanding of her character without the intrusion of the filmmaker's
egos.... very much the same way that Mother Teresa consistently sought
to serve mankind. The film shows the contrasts between the
uncomfortable public figure continually being showered with recognition
and awards with the joyful private servant who showers love and caring
on society's misfits.