Monday, January 23, 2012

Movie Review: Doubt (2008)

On Friday I watched most of the film Doubt from 2008.  I missed the last twenty minutes or so because I had to leave for 5:30 Mass, but I checked out the ending at Wikipedia.  The film stars Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, Amy Adams as Sister James, and Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller.  The basic plot: in 1964, a black boy, Donald Miller, attends a Bronx parochial school where the student body is exclusively Irish and Italian (i.e. white).  Donald is taken under the wing of Father Flynn who is determined to help the boy survive.  However, doubt is cast on Father Flynn's motives in the minds of Sister Aloysius, the school principal, and Sister James, Donald's teacher.

All four of the lead actors are convincing in their roles.  I am always impressed with how Philip Seymour Hoffman has morphed from the weak George in Scent of a Woman and the manic Dusty in Twister to his mature roles in the last decade.  I never saw that coming.  Meryl Streep is always fine in her roles, though I admit I am not completely enamored with her like so many others.  Amy Adams as young Sister James and Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller, the mother of the boy, both did fine in their supporting roles.  The children who acted in the film were very believable.  I have no firsthand experience of teaching sisters and priests; I have read that some felt that Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman were not entirely convincing in their roles.  But I thought they did fine in that regard.

I enjoyed the location shooting.  The use of schools that evoked that time period really gave the film heft.  When certain films are trying to create an atmosphere, I think shooting in the autumn does a lot to help that effort and it shows in Doubt.  As events proceed in the film and the tension builds, several scenes involve the tilting of the camera so that the frame is not level.  This only adds to the tension, especially in the scenes with Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn.

Doubt came out about three years ago, so I am not going to hold back on the plot here.  If you haven't seen it and have read this far and don't want spoilers, don't read on.

The film is about suspicion and doubt on many levels.  Most obviously, Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of abusing the black boy Donald Miller.  Sister sees things and has things reported to her by the young and naive Sister James that leads her to suspect, but she has no proof and Father Flynn when confronted adamantly denies any wrongdoing.  In the past when such issues came up, Sister Aloysius went through back channels to allies in the priesthood who handled the issue quietly, but in the case of Father Flynn, she has no one to whom she can turn with her suspicion.  In the end Father Flynn resigns and is reassigned; nothing is resolved.

On a deeper level, the movie examines the tide of change within the Church in 1964.  Vatican II is underway and Father Flynn and his attitudes represent that change to a kinder, friendlier Church.  Sister Aloysius represents the old ways that are now in doubt.  I wonder if the writer/director John Patrick Shanley realized the irony of Sister Aloysius when he was writing her given that she is determined to instill in her students and the sister-teachers under her the sense of hierarchy that she herself fights in dealing with Father Flynn.  Even the arrival of a black family in an Irish and Italian neighborhood foretells the upheavals that are to come with urban renewal and white flight to the suburbs.

Is the film anti-Catholic?  I wouldn't say so, no.  It certainly relies upon the Catholic milieu of the time and place in which it is set to tell its story and I can't fault it for that.  It tells a story well, its characters are not caricatures as far as I could tell.  I'll give it four out of five stars.

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