' ' Cinema Romantico: Doubt

Monday, December 15, 2008


There were many notions rattling through my head after seeing this hard-hitting drama set inside a 1964 Catholic school. We don't really know ourselves, only God does. Right? Isn't that how it supposedly works? We know not what we do? And so if we don't really know ourselves we don't really know anyone else, even though a lot of times we like to presume we do. We're all sinners but Jesus died for our sins (that's what I was taught) so that makes it all good, doesn't it? So I sinned. So what? He died for them, so I'm all set. Aren't I? I mean, religion is a really good security blanket, isn't it? It's....okay, I apologize. I'm stopping now. Any time this subject enters the fold I tend to get distracted.

"Doubt" is not distracting. It has an awesome power. It is one of the best films of the year. It was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley and was based on his stage play that earned a Tony and a Pulitzer and it does not seem to have lost anything in its conversion to screen. The grade school is governed by Principal Sister Aloysious (Meryl Streep), a nun who is not in love with the modern world and seems to constantly cast a suspicious eye toward Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) who believes times have changed and the church needs to do the same.

But one day Father Flynn summons Donald Miller, the only African American boy at the school, from the class of Sister James (Amy Adams) to the rectory all by his lonesome. Sister James, a naive daughter to Aloysious's overbearing mother, suspects something may be amiss and tells Sister Aloysious of this development. "So," says Aloysious, "it's happened."

What's happened exactly? No one knows. Perhaps Father Flynn sexually abused the boy, perhaps not. But perhaps it does not matter either way because perhaps Sister Aloysious has had it in for him from the beginning. But perhaps all this is just the plot and really explains nothing.

Translating his tale to the movie screen, Shanley does a solid job making it cinematic. At various points he uses camera shots and those shots alone to get his point across, like a scene at the dinner table where Sister Adams is essentially forced to finish her food and a moment when Father Flynn takes Sister Aloysius's seat at her desk without either discussing it. He may use one too many "Third Man"-esque tilted camera angles, but that's a minor complaint. And yes, there are two sequences in Streep's office - first between the main trio and then between just Streep and Hoffmann - that clearly show their stage roots but they are so breathtaking you will choose to forget.

The acting, as expected, is fantastic. Hoffmann plays his cards close to the vest, but does a remarkable job always making us aware there is something else, something deeper, behind those eyes. Viola Davis at the mother of the boy at the center of attention has a single but pivotal scene that is garnering Oscar nod talk, and certainly she is excellent, but I'd like to also commend Amy Adams for her fine supporting work. She is a marvelously versatile actress and she seems to shrink in age as Sister Adams, a person too easily influenced, her line delivery childlike. Listen to how she says: "But I just like pageants."

But Lording over them all is the incomparable Streep. She has a finely-tuned nastiness that can either present itself in a back-handed way or right to your face, whichever she chooses. (The argument that Sister Aloysious is some sort of cartoon monster that could not exist in the real world is one I can swiftly cut down with but five words: My High School Spanish Teacher. She not only acted like Sister Aloysious, she looked like her - sans the nun get-up. Case closed. I win. You lose. Find something else to bitch about.) She's more humane than you think, witness her turning a blind eye to another nun beginning to suffer from blindness, but, despite her line of work, she's no saint. She glides through scenes with a self-described "certainty" that maybe, just maybe, isn't quite as certain as you or she thinks it is. Shanley's writing lends a little more depth, and a little more, and a little more, as it goes along, but Streep is also able to bring this on her own. At a crucial moment Hoffmann says in response to a question, "Hmmmmmm....." And then Streep responds with a "Hmmmmmm" of her own. I laughed out loud, not because it was funny, though it was, but because it was just so....good.

At the center of this movie there is a mystery, yes, but "Doubt's" mystery is merely a set-up for a much larger mystery and one that cannot simply be explained away with a conventional cinematic resolution. Doubts, baby, we've all got 'em. Aloysious doubts Father Flynn. But is that really what she's doubting? Politicians blame other politicians while failing to ever blame themselves. Football coaches blame the referees while ignoring their poor third down strategy. People, all people, whine about the stupidity of other people and sometimes we even look to the heavens and call God a f---ing a--hole because, well, that prevents us from having to look in the mirror. It's easier to doubt someone else than to doubt yourself, isn't it?

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