Writer-director Klaus Haro’s profoundly moving Finnish-language drama Letters to Father Jacob observes a critical period for Leila (feminist scribe Kaarina Hazard), a bullish, intimidating woman without any obvious signs of emotional vulnerability, who gets paroled from a life sentence in prison at the outset of the film. She’s sent to assist a blind elderly minister, Father Jacob (Heikki Nousiainen), in the Finnish countryside, and at his request, spends her days begrudgingly reading the letters he gets from parishioners, and penning responses for him. Though the events that put Leila behind bars aren’t immediately apparent, they do emerge in the final act, setting the film up for a cathartic and devastating denouement as the emotionally tormented main character reaches a state of quiet grace.
The film doesn’t score any points for originality -- this is a tale told often enough that it could easily fall into the trappings of cliche -- but presentation is everything here, and what in coarser hands might seem hackneyed or cloying achieves incredible effectiveness via Haro’s presentation. He is a minimalist at heart, prone to spare dialogue; quiet, telling gestures; and long, contemplative scenes. And he understands the value of restraint -- the film never tells us how shaken Leila is by Jacob’s altruism (she’s so shocked that she initially views it with great skepticism). We can gauge her reactions to the clergyman’s selflessness, and even feel some of the same jolts that she does, as, for example, a woman mails Jacob’s life savings back to him, having used the borrowed money to escape from her abusive husband. The film never overplays its hand as it dramatizes the little shifts in Leila’s behavior, such as her last-minute change of heart when she’s right on the verge of spending money that she’s stolen from Jacob, or her decision to go back and retrieve the letters of his that she has cruelly dumped into a nearby well. The conclusion is also admirably low-key; even after the event that brings Leila to inner peace and contentment (which evokes the first real display of palpable emotion from her), we witness no declaration that she’s about to become a saint or take over the parish, no difficult-to-swallow diatribes about how her life has changed -- not even any obvious shift in her demeanor, prone as she is to putting up an emotional guard. Haro realizes that any of this would be absurd.
Letters also benefits from an inspired visual style. As shot by Tuomo Hutri, the dusky interiors of the clergyman’s home and parish evoke the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, and the movie also makes fervent use of close-ups (such as that of rain cascading onto a stack of letters) that majestically draw out the beauty of banal life details.
On an emotional level, Letters to Father Jacob exhibits some of the same delicate poignancy found in De Sica’s early films, such as Umberto D. and The Children Are Watching Us, wrapped up in a comparable level of poetic understatement. It also exhibits profound degrees of wisdom and understanding about the inherent nature of spiritual redemption.
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