Tuesday, December 16, 2008

John Patrick Stanley's "Doubt": riveting Catholic drama, but like a stage play


Once again, we put together two veteran stars and let them fight it out in a new independent film "Doubt", from John Patrick Stanley (direction his own adaptation of his own play), distributed by Miramax (which has expanded its NYC trademark with a little air tour). Philip Seymour Hoffman is the marginal priest, and Meryl Streep is the schoolmaster, head nun and principal who suspects him of inappropriate behavior with the Catholic school’s one African American boy. The movie looks stagey, with a lot of long dialogues and one-on-one debates, but upper New York City in the oncoming winter in late 1964 is effectively recreated in a film that looks a bit minimalist.

Very early, Hoffman’s character (Father Brendan Flynn) gives a sermon indicating that doubt can be essential to faith, and at the end Streep’s Sister Aloysius Beauvier confesses tearfully of her own doubt, Mother Theresa style. I can remember MCC communions where the celebrant says something like “I’m a believer, not a doubter.” The word appears to derive from French, but I don’t know where the unnecessary ‘b’ comes from.

As to the “evidence,” it is ambiguous enough for really reasonable “doubt”. True, Flynn gives the boy a magnet driven ballerina (rather a physics lesson in angular momentum) early. Then there is the story that the boy drank wine and was removed as an altar boy. Did Flynn give it to him? Then there were the phone calls by Beauvier to other parishes where Flynn had worked. Is this an early example of how the Roman Catholic scandal got started? Even at the end, Flynn is kicked upstairs and “promoted.” Is this “passing the trash” or a coverup?

Most interesting is the conversation (in an outside walk) with the mother (Viola Davis) who, with a surprisingly cool diction, gradually reveals that the boy was placed in Catholic school (as the only “negro” in the language of the LBJ, pre-Civil Rights days) because the boy had been taunted in public school and hated by his father for his “pre-homosexual” (to use the words of Peter Wyden’s notorious 1968 book “Growing Up Straight”).

The film effectively conveys the "atmosphere" of the Church among those who take the vows of poverty; it seems clear that the austere institutions are set up to give the "non marrying kind" a leadership role in Catholic society without disrupting the sexual and social norms of "the normal majority." I say austere, but the priests and nuns eat well. Classroom discipline is also shown well, and is quite pro-active. Amy Adams plays the eight grade teacher (and youthful confidant of both "combatants") well.

I once had a conversation with a principal when I was subbing about a serious incident (regarding my own website) that, though brief, had somewhat the tenor of this film. I could create the scene word for word, and with Meryl Streep playing the principal, it would blow the audiences away.

Viewers may want to check out the documentary “Deliver us from Evil” (2006, directed by Amy Berg) about the scandal surrounding California priest Father Oliver O’Grady.

Update: Dec. 27

Through Facebook, I found another screenwriter's blog with a notation about "Doubt". The link is here.

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