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‘Mother Teresa’ (NR)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1986

"Mother Teresa," which is less a documentary than a commercial for missionary work, follows the 1979 Nobel laureate as she performs her good deeds around the world and is variously honored for performing them.

By way of narrative, the filmmakers, Ann and Jeanette Petrie, weave in Mother Teresa's biography: how she grew up in what is now Yugoslavia, and was attracted to missionary work by letters sent back from priests in India to her sodality; how she worked 18 years there as a teacher, until she heard the call on a train trip to Darjeeling; how she personally took care of 46,000 dying people in Calcutta; how her order, the Missionaries of Charity, has expanded to 70 countries including the United States.

There is an undeniable power to the images of this saintly woman and her followers tending lovingly to people so horribly stricken with disease. But those images fail to accumulate; "Mother Teresa" lacks a sense of artistic austerity. Worse, there is something vaguely meretricious about "Mother Teresa." As we travel from earthquake-stricken Guatemala to war-torn Beirut, from the soup kitchens of San Francisco to the cloisters of Harvard, we get an erroneous picture, less of an admirably selfless woman than of globetrottin' Mother T., the Frequent Flying Nun earning a first-class upgrade for her trip to Heaven.

Mother Teresa herself was interviewed to provide much of the voice-over narration (the pompous remainder comes from Sir Richard Attenborough), but she says nothing particularly edifying, beyond that we should love and share with one another, and assorted bits of catechism. We also learn that there's no difference between spiritual and material poverty, which should be news to Ivan Boesky and Mitch Snyder alike.

The documentary hardly delves into the psychology of altruism, beyond the contentions of several nuns that "something was missing" in their lives. And it avoids altogether the question of overpopulation. The Catholic Church has steadfastly rejected birth control, and Mother Teresa, good soldier that she is, has toed the line. This is probably the first documentary that will be included in a résumé for canonization.

"Mother Teresa" is unrated but contains scenes that may be disturbing to young children.

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