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Grade: A-Mother Teresa (1986)

Director: Ann and Jeannette Petrie

Stars: Mother Teresa, Richard Attenborough

Release Company: PBS

MPAA Rating: NR

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Petrie: Mother Teresa


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Calcutta, India 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 people.

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.

Netflix's 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 intimate portrait.

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

The documentary 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.

 


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