John Patrick Shanley, Doubt: A Parable (play)
Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in Doubt
Doubt is obviously close to Shanley's heart: the story is set in St. Anthony's, the parish school where Shanley was a student, and he has even moved the film version closer to home, literally, shooting some of the early scenes on location in the street where he grew up in the Bronx. For all of Shanley's self-confessed run-ins with the authority figures of his own Catholic schools, the nuns who taught him left their mark in a good way -- he dedicated the play to "the many orders of Catholic nuns" (he goes on to say, "Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?"), and he dedicated the movie to a real-life Sister James, a young nun who taught him as a child and with whom he reconnected in the making of this movie. The order of nuns depicted is the Sisters of Charity of New York, a branch of the order founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, in imitation of the Daughters of Charity established by St. Vincent de Paul.
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The ghostly and dead-accurate evocation of the Bronx in the 1960s -- the habits and costumes (designed by Ann Roth) and the recreation of the streets and shops (art direction by Peter Rogness) -- is shot in a bleak, wintry atmosphere vampirically drained of all color by cinematographer Roger Deakins. The only slightly false note is the music, overseen by Howard Shore, which is lovely but a little bit not Catholic in character. Instead of Gregorian chant and Catholic hymns, the movie closes on Come Thou, Redeemer of the Earth (which stuck in my mind so much that I included it in the Ionarts Christmas card this year). The decidedly Anglican arrangement, by David Willcocks of King's College fame, may have been the suggestion of composer Nico Muhly, who got a credit in the film for some kind of consulting. It's beautiful stuff, but it's not particularly Catholic (at least not in the 1960s, although these days Catholic music directors use those arrangements as much as Anglican or Episcopalians do).
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Fr. Flynn) and Amy Adams (Sister James) in Doubt
SISTER ALOYSIUS. But we are not members of their family. We're different.In the end, one ends up sympathizing mostly with the nuns, whom Shanley shows eating a meal in sober silence in the convent, over the priests, who wolf down blood-raw meat (another somewhat heavy-handed metaphor) in a loud, joking manner in the rectory. The children may be terrified of the nuns, as the wet-behind-the-ears Sister James complains ("Of course they are -- that is how it works," Streep's Sister Aloysius deadpans in reply), but no one can believe that the nuns have anything but the well-being and educational achievement of their students foremost in their minds. If only more people in the world -- for the problem of pedophilia is far from being limited to the Catholic Church -- had taken the zero-tolerance approach to the victimization of children that we see in Sister Aloysius, the culture of silence and protection could not have prevailed as it did. As the stellar if brief performance of Viola Davis as the abused boy's mother lays bare, even those who should most want to protect children, like parents or bishops, sometimes colluded in covering up the crime. What Doubt does so well is to make one question any assumption about whom to blame.
FLYNN. Why? Because of our vows?
SISTER ALOYSIUS. Precisely.
FLYNN. I don't think we're so different.
SISTER ALOYSIUS. And they think we're different. The working-class people of this parish trust us to be different.
Trailer for Doubt, directed by John Patrick Shanley