As a play, Doubt: A Parable began off-Broadway, but within four months of its opening, it had moved to the 975-seat Walter Kerr Theatre in the celebrated New York commercial theatre district. It won a Pullitzer Prize for Drama and nabbed four Tony Awards (for Best Play, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Featured Actress). Maybe that’s what gave the movie’s backers the courage to take the bleak story to the screen, or maybe it was the hopeless subject matter itself: Surely everyone is quietly curious about the now widely reported sexual abuse of boys in the Catholic Church. Wouldn’t that prurient interest, mingled with disgust and a touch of nostalgia, draw moviegoers to a plot like this—a fictional account of a suspected “inappropriate relationship” between a priest and student at a Bronx Catholic school in 1964? Doubt (Miramax Films), directed by John Patrick Shanley (who also wrote the play), is certainly gripping for this reason, among others. Yet for a film about characters tackling an unspeakable sin, Doubt is also surprisingly full of talk. If you’ve ever left a play marveling at how much more freely actors blab on stage than people ever would in real life, this chatty movie might grate on your nerves, despite the fine caliber of the blabbing.
Doubt (like the play, the movie introduces its title theme with a sermon onbewilderment) is centered on the relationships, quarrels and contradictions that make up the St. Nicholas school and parish. The opening is somewhat deceptive: We are briefly introduced to the cheerfully bantering parents of one of the altar boys as they head to mass, and we see other members of the community. But these people will have virtually no role to play in the drama that follows, which will zero in on almost exclusively on a priest and two nuns, with a second altar boy and his mother rounding out the story. Even though several scenes take place outdoors, the outside world has little place in this tale.
For all its stagey reliance on chatter and thinking out loud, Doubt is as fast-moving as any good suspense movie; the mystery is whether the suspected abuse actually happened. As Meryl Streep (playing a hard-nosed nun named Sister Aloysius Beauvier) tries to dig up proof of the misdeed, she is confronted with the imperfections of those around her. Her dogged pursuit of justice brings to the fore her own reservations about her church; she repeats several times that going after wrongdoing requires “taking a step away from God, but in his service”—yet with every step, that distance proves more and more exhausting. Sister Aloysius (also the principal of St. Nicholas) is clearly trying to protect her children, but her spirited young students, most of them the products of working class families, fear her harsh discipline, which she dishes out for even the most minor of infractions. Most of the kids prefer the company of the suspect, but warm and personable, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
After an encounter with Father Flynn that convinces her of his guilt, Sister Aloysius takes her quest to get him out of the parish to the next degree. Meanwhile, Sister James (Amy Adams), a trusting young nun, is won over by Father Flynn’s insistence that he is innocent. When he delivers a fiery sermon about the evils of gossip, Sister James is clearly ridden with guilt for her part in doubting Father Flynn. Does Sister Aloysius handle the situation better? Did she, in fact, do more harm than good by insisting on rooting out the evil she saw? The movie’s ending leaves us to decide. Doubt sets out, with painful care, an unhappy conclusion that comes eventually to seem inevitable: Doing right doesn’t make everything right. You leave wondering if religion and true belief really are a salve for pain—and if misgivings are more or less holy than an unwavering confidence.
-Marni Soupcoff is deputy comment editor at Canada’s National Post.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire