“Doubt,” the excellent movie John Patrick Shanley adapted and directed from his Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning play, works on many levels. Like the play, the film is set in 1964 in a Catholic church in the Bronx.
Most overtly, the film, out on DVD this week (Miramax, $29.99, rated PG-13), is a mystery concerning whether a young Catholic priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is having an improper relationship with one of his students at the parish school. His principal accuser is the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), who eagerly jumps to that conclusion after one of her fellow nuns, a young teacher named Sister James (Amy Adams), confides in her that Father Flynn seems to have “taken an interest” in the 12-year-oldboy, who happens to be the school’s first and only African-American student.
Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
“Doubt” is also a meditation on how quickly people make up their minds about things that are not as clear cut as they appear to be. As Shanley wrote in an essay for the Los Angeles Times, “We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment and of verdict.”
In addition, “Doubt” offers a richly detailed examination of a particular time and place – both inside and outside the Catholic Church – on the verge of cultural change.
Sister Aloysius’ distrust of Father Flynn is fueled by her dislike of his more progressive approach to Catholicism. She’s vehemently old guard in her belief in maintaining strict, even fearful, discipline over her students, and she resents the young priest’s more relaxed and friendly demeanor and his liberal ideas. Yet she’s also very intelligent, with a sharp, biting wit. Conversely, the priest’s liberalism does not extend to the gender hierarchy that exists within the Church, particularly the status of priests versus nuns. In one telling scene, Father Flynn comes to Sister Aloysius’ office for a meeting and, without thinking, sits in her chair. Later on, he berates her for pursuing her investigation of him in a manner that violates the Church’s centuries-old structure.
And the setting evokes the changes in American society brought about by the assassination of President Kennedy a year earlier and the continued efforts of the civil rights movement, particularly its challenge to school and housing segregation. Even in relatively liberal New York City, de facto housing segregation in 1964 often resulted in neighborhood schools, both public and private, being virtually segregated. That the student in question is African American is telling, as is the fact that the boy’s mother (Viola Davis) has to hurry back from a meeting with Sister Aloysius to her job in a nearby Bronx neighborhood known as Parkchester. What is not revealed in the movie is that in 1964 Parkchester was a housing development owned by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company that had a whites-only residential policy, and the only people of color one could find in the neighborhood were either janitors or maids.
In his audio commentary and in several short documentaries on the DVD, Shanley discusses how he transformed his four-character play for the screen. He insisted that the movie be filmed in the neighborhood in which he grew up. He expanded the parts in the film so that audiences actually see students at the school, which makes the allegations against Father Flynn less abstract and more real, and we see the congregation listening to and reacting to the priest’s sermons.
Shanley’s multi-dimensional script, which earned an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay, gets a brilliant reading from its principal cast members - all four of whom received Oscar nominations for their work.
Streep is terrific as the fierce Sister Aloysius, her commitment to protecting her students and her school merging with her over-zealous dislike of Father Flynn. Streep, who is justly famous for her facility with various accents, absolutely nails the timbre and timing of this woman from the Bronx.
Hoffman is also persuasive as an idealistic young priest in the mid-‘60s, one who sees the necessity of his church responding to both the needs of its parishioners and the necessity of social change. (A few years later, one might expect Father Flynn to have joined the radical priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan in the peace movement.) Indeed, it’s Father Flynn’s desire to welcome and nurture the school’s sole African-American student that leads to the suspicion of him.
And among the supporting players, Adams expertly captures the younger nun’s naivete and her love of teaching, while Davis is riveting in all her scenes as the mother of the student in question who reveals yet another dimension to the story.
To Shanley’s credit, “Doubt” as a film remains provocative, challenging and demanding. He provides no easy answers or definitive conclusions to either the broader issues raised or the specific charge leveled by Sister Aloysius against Father Flynn. As an audience, we are buffeted back and forth in our allegiances. As Shanley told a New York Times interviewer, “I’d like to attack the notion that movies are about certainty, about affirming a political profile and validating what people already believe.”
Instead, in “Doubt” Shanley asks us all to think.