Saturday, January 10, 2009

Have No Doubt: Doubt Delivers

Let me get my single qualm with this film out of the way, for it's otherwise beyond reproach. Meryl Streep's character, Sister Aloysius, is somewhat a caricature. Some reviewers think not, like John Beifuss:
"As a person who had the glasses literally slapped from his face by a Roman Catholic sister in elementary school, I can testify that it's hard to exaggerate when portraying a nun."
My experience, however, squares more with that of Roger Ebert:
"In my eight years of Catholic school, not a one of the Dominican nuns was anything but kind and dedicated, and I was never touched, except by Sister Ambrosetta's thunking forefinger to the skull in first grade."
Like Ebert, I had eight years of Catholic education, and most of my nun teachers were very kind. (Though my best friend got stuck with a terror in the fifth grade, one Sister Louise who openly prayed down destruction on students who annoyed her -- one time she even told a kid, "I hope to God your house burns down." But she was a striking exception.) I was never Catholic but have generally positive memories of my Catholic schooling. Yes, I grew up in the '80s -- well after the film's 1964 setting -- but Ebert would have grown up in the '50s, before even Vatican II.

Streep, of course, does an excellent job playing the part she was given (when does she not?), but her character could have been fleshed out with at least some positive traits. Sister Aloysius is as grim and icy as a witch out of a fairy-tale: patrolling the church-aisles like a fascist, whacking the heads of dozing kids; shooting withering gazes at other sisters who refuse to eat every morsel on their plates; waxing wroth at the sight of ballpoint pens. It's enough that she's old school, pre-Vatican II in mentality, and engaged in a power-play with a liberal priest. She doesn't have to be Queen Bitcheousness for overkill.

That business aside, I really liked Shanley's film. It tells its parable of doubt with craft and intelligence: A young and naive nun (Sister James, played by Amy Adams) suspects that the parish priest (Father Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) has an erotic interest in one of his altar boys. She races to tell Sister Aloysius, but has doubts about the priest's guilt. The Dragon-Nun, no friend of Father Liberal to begin with, becomes instantly certain of it. We're not sure what to believe or how to feel, because the evidence is murky and the priest is a sympathetic character.

The drama escalates in four pivotal scenes, each perfectly directed and played by the actors: (1) the initial confrontation in Sister Aloysius' office, where she and Sister James accuse Father Flynn; (2) the sit-down on a park bench between Father Flynn and Sister James, who becomes convinced he's not doing anything wrong; (3) the outside conversation between Sister Aloysius and the boy's mother (an exceptionally agonizing scene, and definitely the film's best); and (4) the inevitable showdown between Father Flynn and Aloysius. It's intense viewing, and some of the best screen-dialogue I've witnessed in a long time.

In the end, every character (even Aloysius) is left with doubts, and nothing is clearly spelled out. Father Flynn and the boy are both apparently gay, and whatever exactly happened between them in the rectory, it may not have owed to predation on the priest's part, though this isn't certain. The boy's mother isn't wild about their relationship, but thinks it's a refuge from life at home under a violently abusive father (who hates and beats the boy for "his nature") -- though that's a hard idea in a world which pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths. Only one thing is certain: the film delivers and satisfies in all its refreshing ambiguity.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.


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