Mother Teresa (1986)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Whenever Mother Teresa was brought up on television, movies, or every day conversation, I knew the name was tantamount to kindness and goodwill. But prior to watching the documentary by Ann Petrie and Jeanette Petrie, I didn’t even know how she looked like. In a span of five years, the filmmakers followed her work as a missionary of charity, along with her nuns, visiting many countries to give service to the poorest of the poor.
It begins in Kolkata, India as Mother Teresa visited orphanages, shelters, and the streets. Although people spoke in a language that may be foreign to many of us, actions spoke for themselves, like nuns carrying those unable to get up on their own due to sickness and malnutrition with white sheets. My eyes focused on the bodies that looked like skeletons with skin barely hanging over them. I felt scared and concerned and wondered how they were still alive. It was like peeking into a world of the living dead.
The narration by Mother Teresa is quite soft. It is appropriate that her voice is almost drowned amidst the hustle and bustle of the images, from children crying to the excited buzzing that someone considered to be a living saint was making an appearance. Because I wanted to hear Mother Teresa’s commentary, I leaned closer and tried to really think about her choice of words, how they were said, and the meaning behind them. She was a person with plenty of wisdom to give.
There are a lot of images that showed Mother Teresa touching people using her hands. It didn’t matter if they were sick, healthy, men, women, rich, poor–she touched them–on the head, the shoulder, the hands. This made me think about my own limitations. I thought about me always being concerned of other people’s germs. For example, although I work with kids, I make an attempt not to touch them unless necessary. During flu season, I avoid the sick like the plague. I could not help but admire this woman making physical contact with everyone–especially the sick and the dying. They need to be touched the most.
A visit to South Bronx, New York introduced the idea of the great poverty of rich nations. Ignoring the poor, to see at them but not really looking them, is something that is in all of us. This made me think back on one of my other jobs as an attendant in a public gallery. During one of my shifts, a very concerned woman came up to me and whispered that a homeless man, talking to himself, was inside and looking at all the art. She asked if I was aware of this and when I had said that I was, she gave me the most surprised look, almost taken aback that, clearly, I was not going to do anything about it. Just from the sound of her voice and her body language, I knew that she wanted me either to show the homeless man the door or call the police. It was a public gallery. Didn’t that woman consider the man a part of her community? I knew right away that there is truth in Mother Teresa’s claim about the poverty of rich nations.
I know this is about to sound so corny but I cried eventually because there was so much kindness caught on film. An image I will never forget involved one of the nuns rubbing a child’s chest (or what looks like a child–very difficult to tell due to severe malnutrition) and helping him sit up because he could barely breathe while on a horizontal position. There was a silence that could be heard. The way he looked at her as he gasped for precious air made me cry because it was clear he couldn’t speak. He looked at his helper’s eyes so intently for several seconds as if to telepathically communicate a “Thank you.”
Seeing that made me feel small. I never knew how it was like to be so moved by something positive that tears started welling up in my eyes and sliding down my cheeks. Now I do. And I’m grateful.
Mother Teresa is a woman of God, a symbol of what He represents. Although I do not subscribe to a religion and it is a certainty that her beliefs do not match mine perfectly, it does not matter. It isn’t about her creed; it’s about her actions. I enjoyed that the film has spiritual elements but it is not religious. Atheists can watch this and connect with it fully. It is a very human experience–it is as moving as it is aspirational.