Running at less than seventy five minutes, at first glance Finnish film Letters to Father Jacob would seem to be a slight effort with little to offer. How much can one say in so little time? Instead, the film trades length for intimacy, and accomplished quite a lot in its miniscule time frame.
Leila Sten (Kaarina Hazard) is an ex-convict, who has served many years for a serious crime which isn't revealed until late in the film. Her sentence has recently been commuted, and she has been offered a job with Fr. Jacob (Heikki Nousiainen), a blind, retired priest who still lives in the isolated parsonage in which has served as his home for many years. Leila isn't very excited about the job. She's still tied up with anger and resentment from her past and her time in prison, but she has nowhere else to go. Her first encounters with Jacob are gruff, and their developing relationship is well displayed by the progression of their daily tea together. At first, Leila refuses even to sit at the same end of the table as Jacob, or to have much to do with him at all. Slowly, her hard and bitter exterior begins to soften somewhat, yielding to the cheerfulness and peace of the old priest. The two move closer physically at the table as their relationship grows.
What Leila has been hired to do is to assist Jacob in reading and replying to letters. Most of his time is taken up with the task. People from all over Finland send him letters, asking for prayers or advice, and he responds to them all, excepting the ones that Leila tosses in the well in the front yard to cut down on her workload. Answering the letters and praying for their authors fills Jacob with a sense of purpose and usefulness. In a way, he lives for them, and always perks up when he hears the familiar call of the postman (Jukka Keinonen) as he rides up on his bicycle with the day's mail. In large part, Jacob's happiness depends on the letters, and he goes through something of a crisis of faith when they stop coming. The weeks long drought of correspondence finds him more and more morose, often not even changing out of his pajamas or getting out of bed. At first, Leila has little but contempt for the old man and his actions. Her cynicism has been sharpened and cured in prison, and she finds the idea of faith and forgiveness to be sentimental fluff. A personal crisis of her own begins to bring her around, and she ends the film a happier woman than she began it.
There is much to praise in Letters to Father Jacob. The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly Hazard and Nousiainen as the ill matched convict and pastor. The story is direct and powerful, without descending into mawkishness or saccharine sentimentality. Director Klaus Haro manages to genuinely move the viewer without resorting to overt manipulation or gimmicks. The film is quite deliberately paced, and it's the performances that hold the attention. Hazards burly frame, carrying her resentment in her pursed lips and stiff posture commands one to pay her heed, and Nousiainen's delightful presence, with just a touch of whimsy, makes one smile without even knowing why. The only criticism possible would be the film's length. Leila's transition from hardened cynic to a believer in the possibility of forgiveness and joy is somewhat opaque. She has little spoken dialogue, and though her glances and expressions transmit a wealth of information and nuance, there seems to be about fifteen minutes too little character development. This is not to say that the film is not extremely powerful. It is, but it could have been even more so with a more closely observed character arc for Leila. This is but a quibble, however. Klaus Haro delivers a small, intimate film that resonates strongly, touching on themes that are universal, with barely a misstep. Highly recommended.