Dir: John Patrick Shanley
Why is it that most films involving Catholicism are such austere affairs? Usually written and produced by either secular artists or those who have survived (or recovered) from what they consider to be years of muffled emotion, such films feature steely, vicious nuns who want to do nothing more than paddle the palms of a troublemaker with a ruler or break the resolve of a spirited youngster. Another trope that tends to appear, without a doubt, is the repressed pastor or priest who either buggers men in the shadows of the rectory or is nothing but a desperate pedophile who glommed to the Church and its tenets to repress such longings. While such horror has been explored masterfully in recent years in films such as The Magdalene Sisters, are we ready for another story that juggles Catholicism, abuse and repression?
Based on his Pulitzer and Tony winning play of the same name, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, concerns a 1964 Catholic grade school in the Bronx. The country is in turmoil: our first Catholic president has been assassinated and we are poised to enter the impending disaster of the Vietnam War. But these troubles of the modern world have little effect within the walls of St. Nicholas, ruled by the iron-fisted Sister Aloysious (Meryl Streep, turning in another fine performance). She is so set in her ways that even the fashionable ball point pen is verboten.
But two new arrivals to St. Nicholas shake Sister Aloysius’ resolve. The first is Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a progressive priest whose “care” for the students crosses lines in the Sister’s book. Flynn and his modern philosophy challenge everything Sister Aloysius has held as intractable fact her entire life. While she holds the teachings of the Bible and the decisions of the Pope to be infallible, Father Flynn and his winds of change cause her to question these beliefs. Rather than look inward, Sister Aloysius immediately rejects these notions and thus begins the battle of wills.
Caught between these two towers is Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the school’s other recent arrival. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, Donald is St. Nicholas’s first African-American student and Father Flynn takes great pains to make Donald feel at home. Though never explicitly shown, the introduction of a black student and its implications of change must weigh heavily on Sister Aloysius. When Donald is caught sneaking the ceremonial wine, all the pieces fall into place for Aloysius to prevent the modern world from invading her perfectly constructed realm of certainty.
Whether Father Flynn acted inappropriately with Donald is not the film’s central crux; Doubt is, above all else, about doubt. It’s about the battle of tradition versus the tide of modernity. In the film’s most powerful scene, Sister Aloysius meets with Donald’s mother (Viola Davis in a brief but stunning performance) to express her concerns. Rather than be horrified about the implications of abuse, the mother begs the nun to let her son ride out the year, fearful that the fallout of an expulsion would damage the boy even further than any supposed funny business that may or may not be going on behind the scenes.
Though the screenplay was written for the stage and feels that way at times, Doubt hinges on the performances by Streep and Hoffman. While Amy Adams (Junebug) has more of a perfunctory role as the young nun caught between certainty and doubt, both Streep and Hoffman are electric and impossible not to watch. Even though the film ends somewhat abruptly and on a very contrived last line, Streep and Hoffman make it worthwhile. But is this a film worthy of an Academy Award? I doubt it.
by David Harris