Posted: 04/06/2009



by Del Harvey

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Doubt began as a play by John Patrick Shanley. Adapted and directed for the big screen by the playwright, Doubt became an Academy Award-nominated film starring Meryl Streep as a monstrous nun whose personal moral certainty pits her against a younger priest after an unseemly and unfounded accusation lays great doubt upon the priest’s intentions.

Ms. Streep plays the bespectacled and luddite Sister Aloysius, a woman who has devoted her life to God, if not his right hand of thunder. Early in the film she lays an open handed slap upon a child foolish enough to nod off during a Sunday sermon. She hisses curtly, “Straighten up!”

The story takes place in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, where Sister Aloysius, also its principal, runs the place with a literal and proverbial iron fist. She struggles to instill vigilance in her youngest teacher, the extravagantly kind Sister James (Amy Adams). But in so doing, Sister Aloysius causes Sister James to suspect that the most popular priest in the school, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is having an inappropriate relationship with one of her pupils, an altar boy and the school’s only black student. She meekly takes her suspicion to Sister Aloysius, who gathers her vast righteousness to insinuate a nasty case of doubt against Father Flynn, who is an otherwise thoughtful and compassionate man with an expansive capacity for rage, especially where Sister Aloysius is concerned.

The movie raises questions which are still compelling. Is Father Flynn really guilty of this sin? And, if he is, are there mitigating circumstances which might absolve him? And, possibly even more to the point, should certainty of thought ever be absolute?

The story’s moral intensity grows as the film unfolds and truths are revealed, including a most incredible moment when Sister Aloysius has a conversation with the boy’s mother, played by Viola Davis with unbelievably human restraint. Their discussion takes place while walking one breezy morning. Ms. Davis is a powerful force come up against an immovable object, and the result is an intensity weighty with all the threat that the unspoken word can convey.

The film is authentically foreboding in a Gothic sort of way, complete with Catholic-school atmosphere and the pure tension of so dark a tale. And the devil wears a frightening range of ominous facial expressions. Ms. Streep and Mr. Hoffman are superb, and the supporting cast rises to the moment whenever called upon. The result is a tense drama of deep and lasting importance.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.

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