by John Villeneuve
Letters to Father Jacob is a film I would have missed at The Vancouver Film Festival, had it not been submitted by Finland for consideration for the Best Foreign Language category. Directed by Klaus H√§r√∂, with economy, but extreme restraint, this Scandinavian film is slight and featherweight, clocking in at just 72 minutes.
The film opens with Leila Sten, a stocky, hardened woman, being released from prison at the request of a catholic priest (Father Jacob) who fought for her early acquittal. The conditions of the pardon are simple: she must remain in the reverend’s custody, employed as his housekeeper. She learns later that the priest is blind and needs, above all else, someone to read the multitude of letters he gets daily from troubled people looking for guidance and prayers. She soon learns that she will be expected to reply to each and every letter, dictated by him.
Initially, Leila finds responding to every letter rather pointless, even stupid, but over time she realizes that this ritual is what gives the priest a sense of purpose, validates his existence, and, therefore, gives him the will to carry on. However, his health is failing, and when the letters stop coming, she realizes she will need to intervene, somehow, so that he may, once again, find a reason for living.
Clearly, Letters to Father Jacob, is a story of redemption. The performances by Kaarina Hazard (Leila) and Heikki Nousiainen (Father Jacob) are effective and lived-in. The cinematography is dusky and grave, and the score is sparse, using just a few strokes on a piano. Simplistic in its narrative thrust, the final revelation is equally muted. To quote from Robert Lowell’s poem, “Burial”, Letters to Father Jacob is like a feather on the top of the mind.
It is hard to say how the Academy will respond to this film, but my guess is that many of the older voters will appreciate it, and many more will respond positively towards its short length. I cannot, however, stop thinking that, overall, the film may appear to some as too slim.