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DOUBT (director/writer: John Patrick Shanley; screenwriter: based on the play by John Patrick Shanley; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editor: Dylan Tichenor; music: Howard Shore; cast: Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius Beauvier), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Brendan Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Viola Davis (Mrs. Miller), Joseph Foster II (Donald Miller), Alice Drummond (Sister Veronica), Audrie Neenan (Sister Raymond), Susan Blommaert (Mrs. Carson), Carrie Preston (Christine Hurley), John Costelloe (Warren Hurley), Lloyd Clay Brown (Jimmy Hurley), Mike Roukis (William London); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Scott Rudin/Mark Roybal; Miramax; 2008)
“Leaves little doubt about its search for tolerance and morality in the real world.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Despite having the stagy artificial feel of a play (through no fault in the way it was shot by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, but by the verbose story itself that makes it seem more stage friendly than cinema friendly), this thought-provoking, argumentative and topical hot-button issue version of a stage drama about a probable pederast priest at a time when such problems were swept under the rug by the Roman Catholic Church sustains an intelligent mood that leaves little doubt about its search for tolerance and morality in the real world. Credit for the film’s sustained suspense must go to the literate screenplay and the dazzling broad caricature performance by Meryl Streep and an equally dazzling nuanced one by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who are each at the top of their game engaging in a spellbinding cat-and-mouse sparring match over their scruples and compassion in a war of words. It’s directed and scripted with great economy and passion by John Patrick Shanley from his own 2005 Pulitzer and Tony Award winner. This is Shanley’s first feature film directing attempt since his underrated failure of the 1990 “Joe Versus The Volcano.”

It’s set in 1964 in St. Nicholas, an Irish and Italian working-class Bronx Catholic grade school. The historical time is one of transition in the city and country when integration is starting to take effect and a social revolution is on its way. The action takes place shortly after the Second Vatican Council (during 1962-1965) introduced new reforms to an inflexible institution that was not willing to change so easily with the times.

Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is the steely longtime no-nonsense disciplinarian principal who runs the school as if it were a prison and who has taken an intense dislike to the popular newly appointed progressive parish priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who also is the basketball teacher during gym class, because of his tolerant stance with the students which she believes is undermining her ‘my way or the highway’ old-school attitude.

Things perk up after the gifted orator priest delivers a sermon to the congregation that suggests “doubt can bring people together as much as faith,” which doesn’t sit well with the certainty the sister has in God and her unbending educational methods that have always seemed to work in running a disciplined school that not only always satisfied the parishioners but also is surprisingly the envy of many proponents of the more liberal public schools concerned about the recent unruliness in their schools.

Sister Aloysius will ask the nervous newcomer naive history teacher Sister James (Amy Adams), the embodiment of kindness, meekness and appeasement, to inform her if Father Flynn shows any strange signs of behavior. When one of Sister James’s eighth-grade altar boy students, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the school’s first and only black student, is called away to the rectory during her class to visit privately with Father Flynn and not only acts strangely upon his return but there’s the smell of alcohol on his breath, she informs the principal. Later when Sister James chats with the priest alone, he charms her and she has doubts about the priest’s special intentions to the boy he acts as protector to that go against her mentor sister’s belief that there’s not something wrong in such an intense interest.

The two polar opposite clergy members take out their verbal knives and go at each other, with the sister positive without having proof that the priest is a child molester while the charismatic priest shows us why the students act to him in a positive light as he’s able to feel their pain and needs while offering them comfort in such a critical time in their development.

These representatives of the church articulate their philosophical differences and are used symbolically to show the battle raging in the modern church between the traditionalist and progressive factions. The sweet-toothed priest, no matter how open-minded, is still viewed as part of the old boy power structure of the church that treats women as second class citizens, and the mean but pious sister is the one that the surviving parochial student will remember as the face of the parochial school. The former students as adults will either fondly or with colorful stories about her tough love disciplinarian measures remember the principal who made them toe the line.

Each clergy opposite can only evoke a certain amount of sympathy but no great emotional feelings for their cause. The one who evokes the most feelings is Donald’s shamed working mother (Viola Davis), who when challenged by the bullying sister tells why she is willing to keep her son in the school even if there was something going on with the priest. The film’s most illuminating dramatic scene has the hard-pressed mother meet with the principal in her office and later to walk with the bonnet wearing sister outside on a blustery winter day past the gigantic dreary middle-class projects of their Parkchester neighborhood. Mom’s reaction to the shocking news of a possible priest molester is not received by her in the way the principal expected and leaves the sister only repeating with increased certainty her well-trodden dogmatic views. With tears rolling down her cheeks, the loving humbled mother expresses her agenda that shows the reality of her domestic situation radically differs from that of the sister’s cloistered one. Mom is not looking for religious answers to life’s problems but for practical solutions that can help her child get a foot up the ladder to success and believes the priest really cares about her abused son no matter the amorality of their relationship, which the old-fashioned religious educator and anti-modernist thinker (who sneers at ballpoint pens as the ruination of good penmanship and “Frosty the Snowman” as too secular of a song to belong in the church’s Christmas pageant) can’t fathom but in a parochial and cynical way.

Weighty existential questions are continually raised but never answered to any one’s satisfaction; it also leaves things purposely ambiguous about whether or not the priest was sexually active with the damaged goods loner 12-year-old—though it certainly gives you the impression that the priest is not completely transparent. The morality play simmers along with an artificially built-up tension based on the possibility that belief and ethics sometimes are not a perfect match and that either of the protagonists might be equally right or wrong in the larger sense of their commitment to education because no one has all the answers (certainly not the gossip-mongers or the rigidly pious) and that for any reasonable person doubt has to enter the equation before one can become a more sincere and deeper understanding believer (by the conclusion doubt is miraculously cast down on all parties).

If one was looking for profound takes on the sensational church sex scandals from a few years before the play was produced or a deep look inside the Catholic Church, you’ll be disappointed because that’s not Shanley’s intention. The serious and well-acted film instead only asks questions about guilt and change, and leaves its story ambiguous so that the viewer can draw their own conclusions about what is right or wrong. To Shanley, one’s own experience is more relevant than religious dogma and that doubt is fine because it’s a shared emotion.

REVIEWED ON 12/23/2008 GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”