December 23, 2008
John Patrick Shanley, who created "Doubt," the award-winning play and now the film, once had an interesting response to a question asked of him on PBS' "Charlie Rose." The host was keen on knowing if Shanley had in his own mind whether or not the male lead, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has done what Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the priest's adversary, accuses him of in the story.
The playwright/director replies, "Yes, I do, but I only tell the actor who plays Father Flynn and the director." Rose then asks Shanley what it is he tells them. "I can't," says Shanley, "I don't even tell the other actors."
That means, you're on your own with your own doubt or certainty as to whether Father Flynn has conducted himself inappropriately with a young boy in Catholic school in the Bronx the year following the death of JFK.
"Doubt" opens with Father Flynn preaching a sermon about doubt. Sister Aloysius, the school principal, has no doubt. But she has misgivings about this progressive, liberal priest and his allegiance to recent changes in the Catholic Church brought by Vatican II.
Let's be closer with our parishioners and their families; not so authoritarian, is how Father Flynn sees the future. It's also a time in the life of the Catholic Church when priest-to-child molestation has not yet surfaced, and dissonance between genders of those who are servants of the Church is more latent.
Sister James (Amy Adams) spots Father Flynn at the boy's locker one afternoon and tells Sister Aloysius, although the younger teacher, gentle and innocent in her way, feels that nothing is awry. The elder nun, doubtless in her way, is certain there's something untoward occurring.
Sister Aloysius even summons the young boy's mother, Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis), to the school and gets another perspective on the son. But their meeting changes nothing in the Sister's mind. The scene reveals the deep love of a mother who has her son's benefit as the only priority.
The conversation in the film is quite nuanced: no mention of homosexuality or pedophilia. All is proper (PG-13), even when the real confrontations erupt between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius.
Performances are memorable, except for a sort of picky thing with the inestimable Ms. Streep. It seems to me she plays Sister Aloysius a bit heavy-handed given the other portrayals in "Doubt." Hoffman, Adams and Davis seem to be natural and pious adults who might have been alive in 1964. Streep's Aloysius appears to be a character who could've been imagined by Charles Dickens.
Realizing Sister Aloysius as what Catholicism was, and not about to be, gives important contrast to the other characters, yes, but it looks like she's a too darkly painted authority figure. It gives the film a subtle cant toward the humanistic attitude as each person in the audience ponders if Father Flynn is culpable or not.
There's no doubt (if you'll excuse the expression) that Sister Aloysius has several culpabilities of a much different kind, such as: the ends justify the means. As she tells Sister James in one scene, "When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God."
That brings me back to what John Patrick Shanley tells Charlie Rose about no one---except the director and the man who plays Father Flynn---really knowing the truth of the charge and must find it in his or her own mind. Despite Shanley's claims to detachment and examining all aspects with doubt as the basis for that exploration, my perception of the truth of the film lies in favor of Father Flynn.
I'm glad I recently watched an On-Demand replay of "12 Angry Men" with Henry Fonda. I'm certain that the best process for "Doubt" is for you to see this riveting new film then decide for yourself.