A simple but transcendent story about faith and human frailty achieves a state of grace in "Letters to Father Jacob."

A simple but transcendent story about faith and human frailty achieves a state of grace in “Letters to Father Jacob.” Beautifully mounted fourth feature from Finnish helmer Klaus Haro (“Elina,” “Mother of Mine,” “The New Man”) centers on a tough ex-con temporarily serving as a secretary for a blind pastor in rural Finland. The director’s magisterial control over the proceedings makes something fresh and heartrending out of predictable material, particularly for older, thoughtful audiences. Fests and TV buyers should send an immediate RSVP.

Surprised at being pardoned 12 years into a life sentence, hard-bitten killer Leila (Kaarina Hazard) takes the prison warden’s suggestion and winds up at the ramshackle parsonage of Father Jacob. The elderly man needs an assistant to pursue his main joy in life: answering the letters of those who write asking for his help. Although Leila regards the pastor’s correspondence as pointless, it ultimately plays a role in her own redemption and self-forgiveness.

In what’s essentially a perfectly cast two-hander, both leads provide remarkable, exquisitely calibrated performances. The heavy-set, masculine-looking Hazard (a feminist academic and writer) makes one feel a lifetime of repressed anger in Leila’s stomping and banging, while TV vet Nousiainen movingly conveys Jacob’s anguish and vulnerability without becoming pathetic.

Working in widescreen, prizewinning lenser Tuomo Hutri supplies director Haro’s trademark lush visuals, complete with landscapes rippled by wind and rain. Detailed but unfussy period production design seems to indicate the 1970s, although the era is not so important due to the timelessness of the tale. An affecting piano score by Dani Stromback gives extra weight to the big emotional moments, while precision cutting by Samu Heikkila makes the slim running time just right.

Pic was originally made for television, but the producers soon realized it had theatrical potential for the home market. It will go out in Finnish theaters via Nordisk in April.

Letters to Father Jacob

Finland

Production

A Nordisk Film release of a Kinotar production, with the support of YLE TV, Finnish Film Foundation, Swedish Television. (International sales: Kinotar, Helsinki.) Produced by Lasse Saarinen, Rimbo Salomaa. Directed, written by Klaus Haro, based on an original script by Jaana Makkonen.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Tuomo Hutri; editor, Samu Heikkila; music, Dani Stromback; production designer, Kaisa Makinen, costume designer, Sari Suominen; sound (Dolby Digital) Kirka Sainio. Reviewed at Gothenburg Film Festival (Nordic Light), Jan. 28, 2009. Running time: 74 MIN.

With

Kaarina Hazard, Heikki Nousiainen, Jukka Keinonen, Esko Roine.

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