Doubt (2008, Director: John Patrick Shanley): Directing his own Tony award-winning play, John Patrick Shanley is helped enormously by a stellar cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. All four were recently honoured with Golden Globe nominations, as was Shanley’s script. The film, set in 1964 at a Catholic school in the Bronx, is essentially a battle of wills between Father Flynn (Hoffman), the charismatic and progressive parish priest, and Sister Aloysius (Streep), the authoritarian principal of the school. There are many reasons for their enmity, including the general segregation of priests and nuns and their differing views of tradition, but something causes her to suspect Flynn of sexually abusing a young black student. The title has many shades of meaning, but most obviously, it is a seed planted by the older woman in the mind of Sister James (Adams), and idealistic young nun who looks up to Flynn.
There is much in the script to savour, and by the end, we’re really not sure what to think of each of our players, but the combination of an intelligent script and a cast of first-rate actors make this compelling from start to finish. And surprisingly, for a film dealing with such a heavy topic, there’s quite a lot of humour. Shanley’s deft touch is not surprising, considering he’s working with his own material, but the art direction and cinematography are just right as well, making this much more than just a filmed performance of the play.
Though I’m sure this will reward multiple viewings, it was interesting to me that the children in the film, especially the one at the centre of the allegations, are curiously pushed to the sidelines as the battle of wills plays out. As well, there is very little discussion of faith in God, since it seems to be more about some of the institutions of the Church. One of my half-formed theories is that the rigid separation of men and women in the Catholic clergy naturally leads to suspicion and jealousy on the part of the women, who have less power. As well, Sister Aloysius stood for a kind of virtue that has nothing to do with compassion, while Flynn was the man of weakness who can empathize with his congregation. I’ll be very curious to see how the Christian community responds to the film.
If I have just one pet peeve, it’s that almost every single time you hear of a Catholic priest nowadays, it’s in relation to some past sexual abuse allegation. It’s a shame that this stereotype ignores the many many fine men who served their congregations and schools selflessly. I grew up attending Catholic schools in the 1970s, and happily have no horror stories to report. I’m sure I’m not the only one.