Archive for Letters to Father Jacob

Happenings Elsewhere

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, Reviews - Film with tags , , , on October 15, 2010 by Nathan Douglas

I promise that I have some new posts coming soon.  This year’s edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival ends this evening.  I saw five films, and not one of them was a dud.  Recaps are on the way.

In the meantime, hop on over to Christianity Today Movies, where I talk about Letters To Father Jacob one more time.


Down Periscope

Posted in News with tags , , on February 7, 2010 by Nathan Douglas

Things are going to be fairly quiet here over the next few weeks.  I’m this close to finishing Part III of my Public Enemies series, but it’s expanded considerably from where it started – of the pieces I drafted in the summer, this one was the most incomplete and as I’ve tackled it anew, it’s only gotten deeper and more intriguing.  I’m not keen on rushing it, though, despite my initial plan to finish it quickly.

Overall, this blog may get quiet because of a major sporting event’s commencement in my city, combined with my involvement with said event.  I won’t have much time over the next three weeks to do much writing, though I will try my hardest.

In the meantime, I’ll note a couple bits of belated Letters To Father Jacob news.

1. The bad: it did not make the Academy’s Foreign Language Film shortlist, let alone the actual nominees.  What this means for the chance of future North American distribution, on home video or in theatres, I do not know.  I doubt we’ll see a theatrical release in Canada.

2. The good: it cleaned up at the Jussis – the Finnish film awards – with wins for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Score.  And while he didn’t win for his lensing of Father Jacob, cinematographer Tuomo Hutri took home an award for another film, The Visitor. Hat tip: Peter T. Chattaway.

“It’s very much about human frailty and who we are when we are at our weakest.”

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film with tags , on January 4, 2010 by Nathan Douglas

So says Klaus Härö, the director of Letters to Father Jacob, who was recently interviewed by Cinema Without Borders.


When we were shooting the film more than a year ago, nobody was talking about an economical crisis or recession of any sort. When the film opened in April of 2009, people all over had lost their jobs and their lives had changed, and this really hit a nerve here. We did not expect a big audience, but here in Finland we had great numbers especially for a film this quiet and still. So this is what this film is about for me: who you are when you are your weakest and do human beings have values within them. (Emphasis mine)

Interesting.  The economy hits the bricks and the filmgoers turn to something “quiet and still.”  Can you imagine that happening here?

Read the whole thing.

EDIT: Also relating to Father Jacob, a shortened version of my personal-essay-review-thing on this film has been posted at Jeffrey Overstreet’s website, Looking Closer.  You can find it here.  Thanks Jeffrey!

Torrential Grace

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, Reviews - Film with tags , , , on December 15, 2009 by Nathan Douglas

This piece was written in the 12 hours immediately following my viewing of LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB, which took place at the tail end of the Vancouver International Film Festival in October.  I was deeply moved by the film, as you’ll see, and re-reading the piece now, I think it accurately captures the feeling of coming out of that experience.  Concerning festival discoveries, there is an inevitable amount of glee associated with being one of the first to trumpet an unseen work, and I’d be remiss to ignore that factor in the writing of my review, so salt accordingly.  While my post-screening rapture had me convinced this was the best film I’ve seen this year, I’m no longer as certain of that.   It is the absolute best cinematic experience I have had in a theatre this year, though (followed two days later by WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, which is in the top tier for my best of 09; it was quite a thrill, seeing these two back to back).

If the essay doesn’t delve deeply into questioning and criticizing the film’s flaws, it’s because it was written entirely within the “full afterglow.”  I couldn’t see flaws if I tried, I was so over the moon.  A second viewing will be essential for a closer look at the film, so hopefully some brave distributor will notice that this is Finland’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and give North Americans some kind of release.  It’d be nice to see the film make the Academy shortlist as well.

TORRENTIAL GRACE: Letters To Father Jacob

Maybe it’s a part of being a film student and even more, a rabid lover of cinema, always immersed in the process of critiquing and analyzing each film to reach my retinas, but I didn’t realize until the third-last shot of LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB  just how long it’s been since a film delivered an emotional sledgehammer  – not a kick or a hug, as many good and great films do, but a gut-busting blow – to my being.

To love cinema, to have that deep and true affection for this medium, is to love thinking about it.  For the last year, I’ve found myself experiencing and engaging with films on an intellectual level I was not previously capable of, nor interested in.  That I’ve grown to love the deeper discussions is a byproduct of daily interactions with my classmates and friends, as formidable, generous, and intelligent a crowd of film lovers could be; as well as being opened up (via my university library and the expanded features of a major city) to the legions of filmmakers, critics, and theorists foreign to my rural Ontario hometown.  This immersion into a deeper and thoughtful experience of cinema has been glorious.  But as I made my way home this evening, reeling from Father Jacob’s fists, I reflected on how few and far between are the works that make their impact on feeling, and feeling alone.  FATHER JACOB is a brilliantly crafted film that invites deeper thinking and interaction, but it does not depend on those facets in the same way it depends on the emotional climax delivered in its dying seconds.  Those elements are worth discussion, but they work best as individual cards in a winning hand.  We may get a peek at individual cards here and there, and appreciate them, but nothing can prepare us for the moment when that hand is revealed in full.

LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB  is simple and staggering, in the vein of Bresson and Dreyer.  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 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 scenes features him coming to terms with those notions in surprising, and humbling way.  To doubt one’s faith in the golden years is one of the great trials believers must face.  I recall my own grandfather shortly before his death; he was a lifelong missionary and priest, a lion of the faith and spiritual leader of our family.  And in his last days on earth, he too doubted, and held firm.  To be so close to one’s eternal destiny only to face, once more, the possibility of disbelief is a moment that is inescapable and frightening.  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.  Whole scenes seem devoted to de-stressing the viewer, using a soundtrack focused on the timbres of everyday activity.  Cinematographer Tuomo Hutri paints his frames with generally low-key soft light, capturing the characters’ inner struggles within the range of his shadows.  There is a wondrous shot that took my breath away; it is a medium close-up of Father Jacob sitting down in his garden, backed by a forest and afternoon sun, enjoying the simple blessings around him. Heikki Nousiainen’s face ripples with quiet joy.  Watching this, so did mine.  It is a film that always takes a long, satisfying breath before continuing to its destination. And when that end does come, the journey has freshened the experience so much that a foregone conclusion proves much, much more resonant than expected.

And how it resonates!  LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB is an ideal example of the transcendental style identified by Paul Schrader, mainly in its way of moving along quietly to a destination of tremendous, unexpected release.  The plot travels leisurely, observing the everyday life with precision.  It records the disparity between Leila and her peaceful setting; and between devoted Jacob and his empty parish.  And then it unleashes the release.  When I say I was affected, I speak of the wave of feeling that rushed through me as the film ended.  It was shocking in its depth and intensity.  It carried a weight and an inner effect that I have only experienced in two settings: very specific, spiritually aware films; and times of prayer and worship.

I guess I’m puzzled by the torrent of emotion accompanying the film, not because the film isn’t affecting (it is, all throughout), but because there wasn’t any sort of specific reason present in my mind for the emoting.  It was such a sudden and violent release, but wasn’t obviously attached to anything specific; it was more a result of many beautiful, powerful, and sorrowful events happening together, set off by one particular moment in one particular image – for reasons I have yet to understand.  It works much the same way that the final shot of AU HASARD BALTHAZAR does, calling up emotion as a summary reaction to many elements.  And it left me in a state of dazed contemplation and simple awareness of God’s presence.  It operates on a level that fiercely resists explanation, and leads the Christian viewer into a worshipful state.  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; 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.  Leila’s life has its own specifics, of course, but the grace she receives also falls on the viewer in a way.  We share in her realization.  It is such a simple story, one that we’ve seen many times.  And here it is again, so refreshing.  Why is that?  I think it’s because if we are truly human, we need this story.  We keep telling it over and over, changing the names and faces, because it is integral to who we are as human beings.  Deep down, we know we’ve all done some wrong, that we all need some redemption.  And then there is grace.  If FATHER JACOB reminds me of one thing, it is that grace never grows old.  It’s never too familiar to lose its effect.  Each new experience of grace is like a renewal on life itself, refreshing, washing, and invigorating.  That is why this story can never be overdone.  Just as grace refreshes every life it enters, so every film that holds it, and truly knows it, cannot be stale.  As a rock star once sang, “Grace finds beauty in everything.”  But let’s not forget the beauty of grace itself.  Such are the gifts of this film.  I don’t think anyone in that hushed theatre will soon forget.

Housekeeping, VIFF, Wild Things, Amazing Grace, & Counting Down to a Hurricane

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, Miscellaneous, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2009 by Nathan Douglas

Blogging has been light, and will likely continue in such a manner for the next few weeks as my classmates and I keep up with the preproduction freight train, leading into our shoot in less than two weeks time.  I’ve got lots to write on, but little time to write.  For now, some quick things:


1. I managed to catch three films at this year’s VIFF.  KAMUI was scattershot, wildly silly, and frequently entertaining despite plot holes you could drive a shark-hunting pirate ship through (and yes, that vessel does factor into the proceedings).  If anything, it’s refreshing to see a swordplay-heavy action film that doesn’t cut every 1.2 seconds.  Or even every 2.5 seconds.

happiest girl in the world

THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD milks everything you would expect, and then some, out of a tightly focused one-day story arc.  In hindsight, I’m not sure if it was as funny as the audience seemed to think at the time, and perhaps found a crowd willing to meet it part way.  Either way, it’s a fine little film.

letters to father jacob

My last film of the festival was a late choice made out of curiosity, not buzz (not that the film necessarily had that), and now having let it settle for a couple weeks, I remain as convinced as ever that it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a theatre this year.  Remember this title: LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB.  I’m not finished with this one.  Keep an eye out for it.  The trailer’s at the bottom of this post.

wild things ira

2. I saw WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE exactly 24 hours after I saw LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB, and I can’t ever remember experiencing a one-two cinema punch quite like that.  Both films are deeply emotionally resonant, and effected similarly strong reactions from my jaded critical self.  Being immersed in film academia, you spend so much time looking at how things are put together (which, I believe, only enhances appreciation) than sitting back and letting it wash over you as a total experience.  JACOB and WILD THINGS are gifts in that regard.  The dissection may, and should, come later, but when they’re up there, unfolding before tired eyes and tired minds, the overall sweep of their stories and characters proves to be cleansing.  I’m not sure I realize yet how much I needed those two films, at that point in my life.


3. Also worth mentioning is the concert U2 just played here in Vancouver.  It was my first U2 show, having only become a fan over the last couple of years.  I was not disappointed.  All I will say is that their one-two-three combination of “One,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Where The Streets Have No Name,” may have been the greatest live-music moment I have ever experienced .  Especially the segue from “Grace” into “Streets”.  The feeling running through that changeover, from reflecting on the gift of grace to the hope of heaven, and the mounting joy as that famous riff builds and builds…truly electrifying.  And a masterful use of their most beloved songs to point the audience’s eyes upwards, towards the Magnificent One.

And through it all, these four guys on stage seemed immune to the crowd’s adoration.  I’d read accounts of concerts, how U2 concerts almost become worship services at times, but I really was surprised at how humble they come off on stage.

switchfoot_hello hurricane

4. Last but not least, Switchfoot, my favourite band, is releasing a new album on November 10.  It’s called Hello Hurricane.  I cannot wait.  And to sweeten the anticipation, the band is previewing every one of the new songs on their website for the next two weeks.  From what I’ve heard so far, this may be their best work since The Beautiful Letdown, and what a summit that album was.  Eleven days to go.

Ok, that’s all for now.  Watch FATHER JACOB, and answer a quick unrelated question: When you think “Edward Zwick,” what springs to mind?