“Letters to Father Jacob” - Klaus Härö (2009)

Letters to Father Jacob (Postia pappi Jaakobille, 2009), a film set in remote rural Finland, shows mostly the interactions of two isolated people who have trouble interacting with anyone.  Both of these people are very lonely and come to question whether their lives have any meaning; but circumstances have thrown them together.  You might think that, with such restrictions on interactions, it would be very difficult to make a film on this subject, but Finnish writer/director Klaus Härö and his crew do an admirable job [1,2,3,4].

The film, which is based on an original story by Jaana Makkonen, concerns a middle-aged woman, Leila Sten (played by Kaarina Hazard) who has just been pardoned after serving twelve years of a life-term prison sentence.  During her time in prison, Leila was never visited by a family member, and she never applied for temporary leave, either.  She is now a cold-hearted, taciturn misanthrope who barely responds to any efforts to communicate with her.  Since Leila is perhaps the key personage in this story, depicting her persona is crucial to the telling of this tale.  The cinematography (by Tuomo Hutri) and editing (by Samu Heikkilä) is critical to this effort, because a number of darkly-lit scenes opening with wide-angle master-shots are followed by slow conversations in closeup.  These conversations feature many nearly expressionless reaction shots on the part of Leila that subtly display her disdain and indifference concerning what is being said to her.

Anyway, now with nowhere to go on her release, Leila is offered a job working for an old priest in a remote parsonage; so she reluctantly takes it.  When she arrives at the rectory, Leila discovers that the old priest, Father Jacob Ljube (Heikki Nousiainen), is completely blind, and her job is to read intercessory letters that arrive every day beseeching Father Jacob to pray to God for the supplicant’s welfare.  For example, a woman living alone might write to Father Jacob that her dog has run away, and she asks him to pray to God that her dog would return to her.  Father Jacob assures Leila that
“It’s important that people know that none of God’s children are useless and forgotten.”
But Leila, an unrefined, stout, and sullen middle-aged woman, has no interest in these things or in the kindly Father Jacob.  Other than reading the daily letters, she barely says a word to him.  Leila does correctly guess, however, that Father Jacob was behind her getting a pardon from her life-term prison sentence.  When she tells him that, he responds by saying that
“I’m only an instrument of God’s mercy.”
So their boring life goes on, interrupted only by the brief daily visits of the letter carrier (Jukka Keinonen) bringing more intercessory letters to Father Jacob.  The letter carrier, however, grows suspicious of the dour former prison “lifer” living with Father Jacob and worries that she may bring harm to him.  When he sneaks inside one afternoon to investigate, he gets throttled by the robust Leila, and after that he is reluctant to come to the rectory [5].  And soon it doesn’t matter, because the flow of letters to Father Jacob finally falls to zero.

With no letters coming in, Father Jacob gets desperate, and so he dresses up in his formal religious garb and arranges for Leila to walk him over to the church so that he can conduct a scheduled wedding ceremony.  But noone shows up for the wedding, and Leila begins to realize that Jacob is descending into senility.  Father Jacob is starting to feel useless and asks Leila to guide him back home.  But Leila refuses and walks out of the church alone.  She is fed up.

Back at the rectory, Leila packs up her bag, steals some of Father Jacob’s money, and calls a taxi to come pick her up.  However, when the taxi arrives, the driver asks her where she wants to go, and Leila is speechless.  She realizes she doesn’t have anywhere on earth to go.  Now at the bottom of her despair, she goes back inside and prepares a rope with which to commit suicide.

The emotional tide of Letters to Father Jacob has reached its lowest ebb.  Our two protagonists are now in utter despair.  Father Jacob is lying on the church floor feeling abandoned by God and starts wondering if all his past intercessory prayers were just for the sake of his own ego.  And Leila is in the rectory grimly putting a noose around her neck. 

But then Father Jacob manages to find his way back to the rectory and unknowingly interrupts Leila’s suicide attempt.  This life-saving intervention induces a change in Leila, and she goes ahead and arranges for a fake letter-reading session to cheer up the feeling-abandoned Father Jacob.  She plans to make up and recite some intercessory requests in her head and pretend to read them to Father Jacob.  In the event, though, Leila begins thinking about her own past horrific transgressions, and she tearfully fabricates a request based on her own real, sinful past.  This is the first time that the perpetually scowling Leila shows feeling and sensitivity in her facial expression.  She concludes her message by wondering
“Who can forgive someone like me?”
Suspecting that this account is Leila’s own confession and probably her very first opening-up to God (or perhaps to anyone, for that matter), Father Jacob softly responds with
“What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
This heartfelt exchange proves to be salvational for both Leila and Father Jacob.  By reaching out to each other, they have set themselves back on benevolent, meaningful paths.  Depending upon your perspective, you could say this benevolence was achieved through either (a) the instrumentality of religion as a social toll or (b) their serving as instruments of God’s benignity.  In any case, direction has now been restored to their lives.

The ending of Letters to Father Jacob, which I will leave to you to see, is sad, but it is in keeping with the realistic tenor of this tale.  We don’t know what will happen to Leila, but now there is at least hope.

In any case, this is a thoughtful film that you might enjoy.

  1. Betsy Sharkey, “Movie review: ‘Letters to Father Jacob’”, Los Angeles Times, (15 October 2010).   
  2. Jeannette Catsoulis “The Ex-Con and the Priest”, The New York Times, (7 October 2010).   
  3. Andrew Schenker, “Review: Letters to Father Jacob”, Slant Magazine, (3 October 2010).   
  4. Nathan Southern, “Letters to Father Jacob”, TV Guide, (n.d.).   
  5. A friend suggested to me that the letter carrier’s sneak-in visit to the rectory was actually an instance of the letter carrier’s efforts to replenish the dwindling flow of letters to the priest by stealing some already-delivered letters that Father Jacob stored under his bed.  By recycling old letters, the letter carrier could maintain the falsehood that the intercessory letters were not diminishing.  I doubt this interpretation was the case, but you can consider the possibility when you see the film.

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