Friday, October 8, 2010

The Case for Faith

Letters to Father Jacob
Directed and written by Klaus Härö
Released by Olive Films
With Kaarina Hazard, Heikki Nousiainen
Opens October 8, 2010

In our mainly secular world, honest movies about faith are few and far between. The new Finnish film Letters to Father Jacob takes up the case for a renewed faith in mankind, and the result is a miniature gem.

The film begins as Leila is pardoned for killing someone after a dozen years in jail. As part of her release program, the middle-aged loner is furloughed to a nearby parish, where Father Jacob, an elderly blind priest, lives. Her job is to read the letters he receives from hopeless, helpless people and send back his hopeful, helpful answers. As church attendance declines and fewer people keep God in their lives, Father Jacob believes that answering these poignant letters gives others the hope they need to go on.

Initially, Leila is not only indifferent but outright hostile to the letters, thinking it’s a complete waste of time. Gradually, however, she comes to realize that Jacob is doing more than merely answering so many needy people: he’s keeping his own tenuous faith alive. She also discovers why she was released from prison after serving twelve years.

With utmost restraint, writer-director Klaus Härö paints a modest but affecting portrait of a world which still has ample room for faith, hope and trust, if not in a Supreme Being then at least in a friend, a confidante or a neighbor. Although Härö hasn’t created the most original relationship between polar opposites (who are not quite that opposite, we discover), it’s not what happens between Leila and Father Jacob but how.

After an argument, Leila calls a taxi to leave: but when she gets in the cab and the driver asks, “Where to?” she realizes the folly of her rash decision, since she literally has nowhere to go. Moments like this strengthen characterizations immensely and, by the time of the low-key but tragic ending, leave the viewer drained. In the final moments, Leila looks at an envelope containing an important address, and the director quietly cuts away from her to emphasize her continued isolation: will she move on with her life?

Kaarina Hazard (Leila) and Heikki Nousiainen (Jacob) brilliantly dramatize the initially antagonistic but, finally, mutually dependent couple. Tuomo Hutri’s splendid cinematography catches the transient beauty of the natural world that surrounds these two people, and restrained use of Dani Strömbäck’s solo piano music underlines the director’s quietly devastating story.

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