Can a murderer (or murderess) find pardon? Can he (or she) forgive herself? Are there still saints? Can one serve one’s fellow human beings merely by praying for them and offering them words of consolation and advice?
These are the questions explored by the 2009 Finnish film Letters to Father Jacob, which I just watched at the suggestion of a friend. It is a simple story simply told (it’s only 75 minutes long). It tells the tale of Leila, a pardoned and released killer, who takes a job as personal assistant to the blind Father Jacob, who lives in seclusion and whose only work appears to be reading and answering letters from people seeking his prayers and advice — a work that he obviously cannot carry on without someone to read and write for him.
Simply by virtue of its subject matter this fine film avoids (by a long shot) the vulgarity, superficiality, and mind-numbingness of so much of what Hollywood offers. On the other hand, it also avoids the kind of errors to which a film about this subject matter might fall prey. A lesser film that sought to arouse our sympathy for a murderess might try to present her simply as a victim. This film presents her as human but (like all human beings) difficult, self-centered, impatient. Her heart does not exactly melt right from the beginning for the helplessness and gentleness of Father Jacob. Such a film might also be tempted to present the priest simply as a holy and wise old man, healing the wounded soul of his assistant with his kindness. It instead shows him as believeably human and flawed in his own ways. We see the self-doubt and self-pity that might assail even the saint. We see also that even a saint’s mental powers begin to fail in old age, so that as he offers everything to God part of what he has to offer is his mental deterioration.
A film like this presents a paradox. It is exactly the kind of thing that young Americans would be very unlikely to watch. But it is exactly the kind of film that would be good for them to watch, to the extent that it would lead them to ponder seriously what it is that makes life good and dignified.