Letters to Father Jacob (2009) – Guest Reviewer N.W. Douglas

[Note: This review was submitted by N.W Douglas, an undergraduate film student at Simon Fraser University. He's fired up about a film he recently discovered, and his enthusiasm has certainly put the title on my list of films to see in 2009. - Jeffrey]

A guest review by N.W. Douglas.

In the vein of Robert Bresson, Klaus Härö’s Letters To Father Jacob is simple and staggering.

Leila (Kaarina Hazard), an incarcerated criminal, receives an unexpected early pardon from her life sentence. She goes to work for Father Jacob (Heikki Nousiainen), a blind elderly priest tending an abandoned church. Instead of housework, he wants her to read letters to him.

That is the set-up.

The rest consists of carefully observed interactions between these two characters. Father Jacob (Heikki Nousiainen) lives for his correspondence, and for his place as an intercessor for any who would care to write him. Leila is hard-nosed about matters of faith, of course, and tempted by the shady opportunities of serving a frail, sightless man who doesn’t care much for his tin of life savings.

It’s a familiar template – those who are cold are made warm by spending time with one of those problems like Maria – but director/co-writer Klaus Härö mostly avoids easy sentimentality. Father Jacob himself has his doubts, and one of the film’s most affecting scenes features him coming to terms with those notions in a surprising, and humbling way. As Father Jacob, Nousiainen is constantly in a dance between bursting joy and deep sorrow, and he walks that tightrope without ever falling completely to one side, or into some sort of generic bittersweet caricature.

In this sort of story, we know in a broad sense what will happen; the pleasure of the film comes in its journey towards that end. This is a journey that evokes Bresson through its attention to detail. The viewer is invited to bask in the quiet atmosphere of a rural pastor’s world: close-ups of whistling kettles, thickly sliced bread, trickling tea. The creak of an ancient home’s floorboards. Outside, the patter of rain, and inside, the melody provided by a leaky roof. Cinematographer Tuomo Hutri paints his frames with generally low-key soft light, capturing the characters’ inner struggles within the range of his shadows.

For the blockbuster-fatigued viewer, there are moments of quiet rest in which to revel.

One shot focuses on Father Jacob sitting down in his garden, backed by a forest and afternoon sun, enjoying the simple blessings around him. Heikki Nousiainen’s face slowly ripples with quiet joy. Watching this, so did mine.

Letters To Father Jacob is an ideal example of the transcendental style described by Paul Schrader, mainly in its way of moving along quietly to a destination of tremendous, unexpected release. The film left me in a state of dazed contemplation and simple awareness of God’s presence. Like Father Jacob, always casting his eyes heavenward, I found my soul looking upwards in thanks for the experience of a film that becomes more than a projected story; it becomes a chance to communicate with my Creator.

This is the best kind of film: one that uses the power of cinema to usher a viewer into the presence of God. The audience becomes a congregation; together we bear witness to a human sibling’s pains and doubts, and we see the humble, life-affirming power of forgiveness. As a rock star once sang, “Grace finds beauty in everything.” But let’s not forget the beauty of grace itself. I don’t think anyone in that hushed theatre will soon forget.

[N.W. Douglas is an undergraduate film student at Simon Fraser University. His blog is "Cinema Truth": http://filmatical.wordpress.com.]

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