Sunday, February 14, 2010

John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" (2008)

I did not see this Pulitzer-Prize winning play when it was staged on Broadway, and so thought I would see the movie, directed by the playwright, who also wrote the screenplay. The movie was shot in the Bronx, the play's location, in the Catholic elementary school Shanley attended. To bring that Irish and Italian neighborhood and the Sisters of Charity (who run the school) to life, the movie begins with a strong attention to detail that is not quite integrated into the action. As a result the opening feels slow, feels like scene-setting.

The confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn over the latter's illicit involvement with a black student sizzles due to the sharp dialogue, and Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman's performances. I did not feel, however, that the issue of certainty in an uncertain world is explored to any revelatory depth. Sister Aloyisus's pinched certainty is vindicated in the end when Father Flynn resigns and so "confesses" his guilt. The moral thrust of the movie seems to be that we should not judge too hastily an unlikable faith in the truth.

Father Flynn, on the other hand, is shown up to be self-deluding. He is the kind of the person who does not know true regret for his actions, to paraphrase the good Sister's judgment. Such moral conviction is salutary when doubt in our time is so often used as a cover for wrongdoing. But the movie does not show us the nature of Father Flynn's secret relationship with his student. It sees everything through the eyes of Sister Aloysius and of young, innocent Sister James (Amy Adams). It admits no doubt that such a relationship must be completely wrong.

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