By Linda Wisnh-Bolard
(Wiggly Socks Film Reviews)
It begins with a close-up of a middle aged, ordinary man’s face, switches to middle aged female face. The man says: 12 years and never an application for leave…never an application for a family visit. As the camera showed Leila (Kaarina Hazard) in her prison garb, my jaw dropped. A family leave out of prison? I am watching a story from a different planet.
Indeed, I was.
Leila is pardoned after serving 12 years out of her life sentence. She is unattractive, closed in herself, distrustful and confused; all of it at the same time. Leila is not kicked into the street, where her record will prevent any employment sending her back to prison in no time, no, the warden makes an attempt to find her a suitable situation.
Leila does not have a supportive family, she is being offered an employment with a room and board: she will go and live with a priest called Father Jacob.
This is not what Leila wants; it takes her a while to accept that there is no other real option for her. Freedom is not all that free.
She arrives to a large, rambling parsonage among fields and trees. The run down house does not impress her, nor does Father Jacob. It is hard for her to understand that Father Jacob is truly blind, her duties-reading and answering the letters send to him- bore and annoy her.
Leila is not evil, she is stuck. The realization is very painful for her. It’s hard to accept what she sees as charity. She would run, but where is she to go? Slowly she begins to understand who Father Jacob, as person, is and why he does what he does. During that time Father Jacob has his own revelation and acceptance to arrive at.
The entire film is an interaction among the largely silent Leila and the eloquent Father Jacob with an important addition of the mailman.
These three people act out human loneliness, need for contact and fears which that longing brings.
It is a film primarily about human need to be needed and the wreckage that loneliness causes. Among the trees, woods and water in houses Americans would find primitive, in a church so old (and so amazingly beautiful) that its pagan roots can still be detected, the basic human need for connection while living a full, needed life are enacted.
The story, its values, questions, problems and small solutions are as far from Hollywood production as the land of thousand lakes, Finland, is from LA.
The way Leila and Father Jacob question their lives, their actions, expectations, the consequences of what they did is a process of unveiling unknown in America. It is possible that Leila pardon is a result of newly discovered circumstances- I live in a country where far right oriented Supreme Court Justicesand declare that it is fine for prosecutors to suppress evidence of innocence even if the innocent person ends up in prison and the perpetrator goes free. Not the same planet.
It is a lovely film to watch, slow, careful, understated and utterly believably human. Gently, severely the humans try to assess each other, to touch each other. Nothing is overt; there are no jumps and climbs, only quiet growth of proximity that brings understanding. Klaus Haro uses shots of bare feet, slapping shoes, details that creates a whole picture of life, it’s an expert usage of film language rarely sees. Add the music score and camera and you have moved far away from cities that never sleep.
It gives a lot to ponder about. We, the people of USA, live immensely lonely lives. Despite media projections of happy families and friends, the reality is mistrust born out constant need to pretend and hide. We are not allowed to show ourselves in our work places, it might offend and we have no job security. We cannot express opinions for the same reasons. We have to subject ourselves to demeaning tests and scrutiny constantly proving that we are the ”best” yet never demanding rewards for being even good. We are brought to fight to be the first, not to have lasting relationships. At the end, we are largely alone. Families fall apart, don’t communicate, are unwilling to help. Friendship is passing, casual affair. We don’t measure our success by being able to help. Being needed, is considered unhealthy, our success is measured solely in money.
Letters to Father Jacob present a stark contrast to all values taught to Americans. It questions all we know; gently it presents lives lived differently, and quite possibly happier than our will ever be.
Go and see film with people who look real, act awkward and will never drive a Ferrari. It’s an experience well worth it.
Kaarina Hazard, in real life a feminist academic and writer, is excellent in her portrait of repressed, angry, hurt Leila. Heavy set and blunt, she manages to convey a whole scale of feelings without spoken word. Heikki Nousiainen’s blind priest is a dream of old faithful. It’s an excellent casting completed by the wiry Jukka Keinonen. All three actors touch by their vulnerable humanity; it is such unusual feeling- and so nice!
I am glad that the story is incomprehensible to Hollywood producers. I will not have to watch Natalie Portman andfighting the unsuitable parts of Leila and Father Jacob, nor see a soppy happy end tacked on to get better rating. I am thankful for small mercies.
Directed by Klaus Haro. Starring: Kaarina Hazard, Heikki Nousiainen, Jukka Keinonen, Esko Roine. Camera: Tuomo Hutri, editoing: Samu Heikkila; music: Dani Stromback;
A Nordisk Film release of a Kinotar production, with the support of YLE TV, Finnish Film Foundation, Swedish Television. Produced by Lasse Saarinen, Rimbo Salomaa. Directed, written by Klaus Haro, based on an original script by Jaana Makkonen.