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For Your Consideration: 'Doubt'

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John Patrick Shanley, Doubt: A Parable (play)
As a playwright John Patrick Shanley can certainly tell a story through vivid characters speaking to one another. His play Doubt: A Parable, an exploration of the conflict between a nun and a priest at a school in the Bronx, won the Pulitzer Prize and several other awards. He was able to transfer that gift for natural and yet memorable dialogue to the big screen, with excellent screenplays for Moonstruck and Alive, the latter seen by far fewer people but an extraordinary movie which is also about Catholicism in an indirect way. After he directed his own screenplay for the disastrous Joe versus the Volcano, however, it is surprising that anyone ever greenlighted a project of his again.

Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in Doubt
Still, Shanley was sitting on one of the more successful plays of the decade, and he was given the chance to revise his concise but very word-oriented play for film. For the fearsome nun who serves as principal of the school, Sister Aloysius (then as now, nuns sometimes take the names of male saints when they profess), he was able to book Meryl Streep. She turns in a performance that is as close to note-perfect as anything in her career, capturing the frankness, wit, and ferocious integrity of the holy nun, a woman who has the moral authority to turn others' hearts to goodness, either out of love or fear. An observation by a younger sister in the community, Sister James (the wide-eyed but generally inconsequential Amy Adams), sets Sister Aloysius on an irreversible course, to drive out the new parish priest, Fr. Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whom she suspects of sexually abusing one of her students.

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
The metaphor of harsh winds blowing -- the conflict between nun and priest has the reforms of Vatican II as a background -- is laid on a bit thick. It may be intended to tip the balance of our sympathy -- the eponymous doubt is as much the viewer's as any of the character's -- toward the more open-minded Fr. Flynn. History has vindicated, if anything, the more tradition-minded Sister Aloysius, who rejects Fr. Flynn's assertion that they as consecrated representatives of the Church should be more like the people in their congregations. In the face of the so-called crisis of vocations, young men and women are offering themselves these days to the most traditional orders and dioceses. It makes sense -- after all, who would want to take on vows of celibacy and poverty to be "just like" a lay person. This exchange between Sister Aloysius and Fr. Flynn makes the distinction quite clear:
SISTER ALOYSIUS. But we are not members of their family. We're different.
FLYNN. Why? Because of our vows?
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.
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.

Trailer for Doubt, directed by John Patrick Shanley

1 comment:

Unknown said...

excellent and fair-minded review of Doubt - most "real" critics haven't a clue.
i'm curious why your helpful concert listings don't consistently name performers (e.g. Baltimore SO's MD Marin Alsop isn't mentioned, but guest cond Philippe Jordan IS).

thanks for info!
happy new year
Jeep Gerhard