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.