This is a Finnish film with cold interiors that resonate the interior life of the wretched protagonist who believes there’s nothing good left in her life. This situation is juxtaposed by a vibrantly lush forest and scenic meadowland dappled with a sunlit path leading to an old, empty church. Her isolation, both physical and emotional, does not let her see the gifts that are set before her.
“Letters to Father Jacob,” as it moves delicately through sparse dialogue, provokes significant reflections in the mature viewer about belief, the purpose of prayer and the notion of forgiveness. Leila, a convicted murderer, receives an inexplicable pardon after serving 12 years in prison. She is given a live-in position with a blind priest who is expecting she will help him by reading out loud his mail and writing out his dictated responses.
He hadn’t counted on her bitterness, her assumption that God, life and all that is good and beautiful is not available to her. A victim of abuse since childhood, Leila does not see the light in life or herself. She is as cold and inhospitable as the interior of the dwelling she now shares. The roof leaks into strategically placed buckets, including one right in front of her bed. The floors are bare wood and the windows appear to be the only light source.
This film has won 14 awards, primarily for direction and acting, at film festivals around the world. But at its recent screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, I noticed that the young gal in front of me, seated with a SIFF board member, appeared to doze off. And I’ll admit it, sometimes my own eyes glazed over.
This is definitely a film for the mature viewer who seeks thoughtful reflections on the human condition. Most of us have regrets and many of us don’t know how to fix up our mistakes. Klaus Härö, director and co-writer, appears to be invoking the Lutheran principle that it is by God’s grace that we are already saved . We just have to recognize, like the beauty of the woods and meadows leading to the church, that this grace is available waiting to be recognized and acknowledged.
Stereotypical of Scandinavian culture, Heikki Nousiainen, as Father Jacob, embodies the person who cannot function well without a purpose. It is Nousiainen’s depth and breadth of characterization of an aging, blind priest that is the fulcrum upon which this film moves and delivers.
How much does the story of Leila and Father Jacob parallel, however coincidentally, the people of Finland? Only 1% of the population is Catholic, the apparent religious denomination of this story. The Lutheran Church of Finland is the national church, but attendance is documented at a paltry 4% (U.S. is 44%).
All of this may help to explain the empty church phenomenon in the film. But is there something more pervasive? Is there an issue more universal to the human condition? A feeling of detachment, a loss of purpose, a sick feeling of worthlessness that is overshadowing people because they have lost their sense of spiritual connectivity to God and each other?
In an interview, Härö has explained: “For a long time, I had hoped to make a film that would portray faith in a warm and genuine manner. I wanted to tell about us, the average people, in need of mercy and forgiveness for our daily shortcomings and about hope and respect for life that isn’t always what we might have hoped for.”
One of the results of this film is an illumination of the potential transformative nature of accepting grace and forgiveness, both from God and each other. Perhaps in a country with the fourth-highest suicide rate in the industrialized world (Hungry, Japan and South Korea rank No. 1 to 3) the impact of its message is especially strong. It won the 2009 Finnish National Film award for best film.
The final judgment is that this is a deeply sensitive outstanding drama that will most likely be most popular with those over 50.
Director: Klaus Härö
Writers: Klaus Härö (screenplay), Jaana Makkonen (original idea)’
Cast: Heikki Nousiainen, Kaarina Hazard, and Jukka Keinonen
Release Date: 8 October 2010 (USA)
Awards: 14 wins & 7 nominations
Best film at Finland’s 2009 National Film Awards Ceremony
Also Known As: “Letters to Father Jaakob” and “ Postia pappi Jaakobille”
Runtime: 74 min | Finland: 75 min
Web Site: http://www.ses.fi/en/film.asp?id=923
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