Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Finnish Faith: Letters to Father Jacob

To be fair, the evangelical film industry is still in its infancy, but it would behoove the Christian filmmakers to look to Finland for inspiration. Submitted last year as the Scandinavian country’s official foreign language Oscar contender, themes of Christian faith and redemption are indeed front and center in Klaus Hӓrö’s Letters to Father Jacob (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As Letters begins, one might think it will be a film noir. About to be released on a pardon she never requested, the hardboiled Leila Sten does not want anyone’s help. Yet as the dramatically lit prison official explains, a compassionate retired priest has offered her a job helping with his correspondence. Blind but profoundly devout, Father Jacob receives letters asking for his prayers from spiritually ailing people around the country. At least he did until Leila arrived.

Naturally, his simple piety and do-gooder mentality irk the callous woman, even though the depth of his faith and commitment are unimpeachable. Yes, it builds towards a redemptive crescendo of reconciliation, but Hӓrö never engages in cheap theatrics along the way. Instead, Leila’s gradual change of heart culminates in a relatively quiet, but truly honest pay-off.

As the title Father, Heikki Nousiainen truly transcends the shopworn kindly old country priest stereotypes in a performance of genuine pathos and humanity. Though it is a less showy role, Kaarina Hazard is quite remarkable as the surly Sten, deftly delivering the film’s emotional knockout punch. Indeed, they both have the look of real flesh-and-blood people who have seen a lot of life’s pain and struggles.

Like recent evangelical films, Letters is a deeply religious work, yet as cinema, it is fundamentally character driven. It is also not afraid to look into the darkness and doubts lingering in its characters’ souls. Hӓrö helms with a sensitive touch throughout, exhibiting tremendous sympathy for the polar opposites. A handsome production, Tuomo Hutri’s warm cinematography strikingly captures the verdant environment while Kaisa Mӓkinen’s sets look appropriately dank yet sheltering.

Deceptively simple, Letters is a surprisingly powerful film. Elegantly crafted and legitimately moving, it is definitely recommended to all art-house cinema patrons not already too cynical to appreciate its sincerity. It opens this Friday (10/8) at the Cinema Village.