Letters to Father Jacob: Finland’s Oscar Entry

By Jeff Farr

“Letters to Father Jacob,” written and directed by Klaus Haro, does not lack for sincerity. Running time is more the problem here: the film speeds through too many plot points in its 70-plus minutes. Before we know it, the story of the life-changing encounter between a middle-aged woman just out of jail and an elderly blind priest is already finito.
Olive Films will release Finland's entry for the 2009 Foreign Language Oscar in October.
Leila (Kaarina Hazard) has served 12 years of life sentence, when she suddenly learns she has been pardoned and is free to face the world. From her muted reaction to the good news, however, it’s clear she is none too happy to be on her way. Writer Haro poses a central question: Why wouldn’t this woman want the gift of freedom?
For one thing, Leila simply has nowhere to go. But fortunately for her, Father Jacob (Heikii Nousiaien), for reasons unknown, has agreed to employ her.
Leila reluctantly travels to a remote part of Finland, where the priest leads a solitary existence. The church in his charge seems to have been empty a very long time, and the priest spends his time puttering about his simple, well-worn house.
Haro creates a nice sense of the confined space, a darkened priest’ quarters, barely furnished, always abuzz with flies. Perhaps Leila has left one prison for another?
The only contact Leila and Father Jacob have with the outside world is through the local postman (Jukka Keinonen), who arrives every day with the “Letters to Father Jacob,” thus the film’s title. Apparently, the priest has many far-flung followers who write to him again and again, sharing their sorrows and asking for his supplication.
As priest, he is completely dedicated to his devotees’ struggling souls—in fact, they are his life itself. Without them, what else does he have? Leila’s job is not to clean the house, it turns out. Instead, she is asked to read each letter aloud to the priest and composing responses based on his advice.
It’s not exactly Leila’s interest. A hardened woman, she is unable to trust anyone at this point, and the idea of God? It is just a nuisance to her.
Haro has to fight against the strong pull of predictability with this setup. It is pretty obvious from early on that helping the priest answer these letters is going to somehow open Leila up. It is also hard not to notice that this priest is on his last legs and might not live to see the end of the movie.
The material’s overt sentimentality presents another major drawback for a story (all too short) that’s indeed moving but is also cloying.
Rather than tone things down, Haro is determined to suck every tear out of our tear ducts—and quickly, too. This gives “Letters to Jacob,” which triumphed at the Cairo International Festival and was Finland’s official entry for the Academy Awards, a forced feel. If Haro had taken his time with the letters themselves, perhaps adding some subplots regarding the priest’s pen pals, he could have added more nuance to the film overall. But he is in quite a rush to get to the main action: Leila’s awakening and the priest’s crisis of faith.
For reasons never explained, the letters one day come to a halt. The postman keeps passing the priest’s house by—nothing to deliver—and both Leila and priest become despondent.
In an awkward sequence, the priest deludes himself into thinking that he is to perform a wedding ceremony at the church, but of course no one ever shows up. Leila, who has had it with him and has even come to blame him for her unwanted pardon, deserts him at the church, calls a cab to leave for good, and sadly realizes that she has nowhere else to go. She attempts suicide.
Unsuccessful at that, Leila does an about-face and becomes utterly intent on protecting the priest: she has found a reason to live? She confronts the postman and orders him to pretend to deliver mail to keep the priest’s spirits up.
This winds up putting her in the challenging position of having to invent the letters herself, an interesting development with rich dramatic possibilities. It could have amounted to something but again gets brusquely shoved aside by Haro. Time is running out: this movie has been going a full hour, let’s wrap things up. To be fair, Haro may have faced budgetary constraints in even getting this film made. There are basically only three actors involved, and we never travel beyond the priest’s little world. This is the epitome of low-budget filmmaking.
But we do not get to spend enough time with these characters for Haro’s character-driven film to have the impact he must have intended. This winds up feeling like a one-hour TV drama for Finnish television.
It is too bad there is not more of Hazard’s fine performance to enjoy. She is the light of the film, giving a deeply compelling performance as this tough yet lost woman who still may have a chance at redemption. Hazard makes a key scene late in the film, in which Leila finally breaks down and spills her beans, refreshingly authentic and memorable.
Leila – Kaarina Hazard
Postman – Jukka Keinonen
Father Jacob – Heikki Nousiainen
An Olive Films release.
Produced by Lasse Saarinen, Risto Salomaa.
Written and Directed by Klaus Haro.
Director of Photography, Tuomo Hutri.
Editor, Samu Heikkila.
Art Director, Kaisa Makinen.
Music, Dani Stromback.
Sound Design, Joonas Jyrala, Kirka Sainio.
Running time: 74 Minutes.