Movie review: ‘Letters to Father Jacob’
In a bare office, a wisp of smoke hugging the side of his face, an official asks a severe-looking woman her plans now that she has been pardoned, her life sentence commuted. Leila (Kaarina Hazard) sits watching, giving away nothing, finally taking the letter he pushes across the desk that offers her room and board.
And so, like a whispered prayer, “Letters to Father Jacob,” the latest portrait of a troubled spirit from Finnish director Klaus Härö, begins its meditative look at faith and the power of compassion to heal.
“Letters to Father Jacob” is religion without the rhetoric. It’s a story of faith expressed with simple grace and the small deeds of a pardoned sinner still searching for forgiveness. It is like a minimalist stage play — three acts, two characters, quietly redemptive.
Leila’s job will be reading letters to a blind priest living in a remote parsonage in a Finish countryside that has been emptied of people. An aging Father Jacob (Heikki Nousiainen) has been left behind, and now he minds the needs of his parishioners by post.
Working with Tuomo Hutri as director of photography, Härö has stripped everything down to the bare essentials. Rooms contain only the necessary furniture. Meals are made of bread and tea, taken in silence. The camera lingers on small tasks, boiling a kettle of water, hanging a coat on a peg, the stuff of real life.
The actors use an equal restraint. Hazard wields the silence Härö has built into the piece like a weapon. Her eyes are almost impossible to read, though there is a hint of menace, and nearly always impatience. With that, she creates an impenetrable wall between Leila and the rest of humanity. Though Father Jacob is blind, he can sense the barrier, and Nousiainen is masterful in using the slightest shift in his face, hands, shoulders to register and react to the emotional currents around him.
The filmmakers use deep shadows and what feels like natural lighting to frame each scene as if it were a still portrait required to tell its story without words. The words we do get mostly come from the letters that arrive for Father Jacob each day. They ask for his guidance, his prayers. In the reading and replying, Leila slowly begins to find a new understanding.
But since this is real life, there are temptations, complications and conflicts for both priest and penitent. Bits of Leila’s past come in flashback, the crime she committed, the damage it caused. For the priest, it is memories of the weddings he used to preside over, the dinners he once hosted.
The world begins to change around them after the letter carrier (Jukka Keinonen) breaks into the parsonage, convinced Leila has done away with the priest. After that, the letters stop coming, setting up a day of reckoning for our two lost souls.
Popular on the festival circuit, the movie was Finland’s Oscar submission last year, and the third of Härö's films to represent the country. The director is probably best known for 2005’s “Mother of Mine,” his World War II look at the emotional difficulties for Finnish children sent to foster homes in Sweden for the duration of the war. It was a denser story than this one, but like “Letters” is infused with a sense of empathy for the human condition that has come to define Härö's work.