Doubt (2008) Directed by John Patrick Shanley
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Father Flynn: Where is your compassion?
Sister Aloysius: Nowhere you can get at it.
Picture it: the Bronx, 1964. Vatican II has opened the window into the world, and fresh wind is blowing through the Catholic Church. At St. Nicholas' Parrish, there are some complaining of the draft.
The Sisters of Charity run the school; Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep; Oscar Nominated for Best Actress) is the principal, in the fine old tradition of terrifying nuns. Sister James (Amy Adams Oscar Nominated for Best Supporting Actress) teaches history. One of her students, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) is the only black student in the school. He has a special protector in the person of the parish priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman; Oscar Nominated for Best Actor). Father Flynn is a warm and compassionate man, and he has genuine warmth for the isolated boy.
Unfortunately, through a series of events, disconnected incidents, Sister James brings a concern that perhaps, perhaps there is something...bearing investigation about the nature of the relationship with the boy. The primary event is the boy was called to the rectory from class, and when he came back, he was down, and Sister James thought she smelled alcohol on his breath.
Sister Aloysius immediately begins a very subtle campaign of innuendo gathering. In an extremely awkward scene, she turns the conversation from the Christmas pageant to the subject of Donald Miller. After a few waltzes and a foxtrot around the topic, Father Flynn asks directly what she wants to talk about; the Christmas Pageant or Donald Miller. And Sister Aloysius is direct. Donald Miller.
Father Flynn is uncomfortable. Sister Aloysius is relentless. Finally, they bring up their main concern; the incident with Donald being called to the rectory and smelling of alcohol.
Father Flynn asks Sister Aloysius to drop it; she won't. He swears nothing improper has happened. She insists that if that is true, he can tell her.
It seems Donald Miller got into the sacramental wine. Mr. McGuinn reported it, and Father Flynn called Donald to get to the bottom of it. As long as the secret was between the three of them, Father Flynn was not going to remove him as an altar boy. Now that the sisters know, Father Flynn has no recourse but to release him.
However, this does not satisfy Sister Aloysius. She lets the matter set, but does not rest. She contacts the boy's mother....
Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis; Oscar Nominated for Best Supporting Actress) is an eye opening experience for Sister Aloysius; Mrs. Miller's concerns are very different from hers. Mrs. Miller cares the most about her son, and his long term future. How this does not coincide with Sister Aloysius' allegations of sexual abuse dumbfounds the nun. But she now knows her course is alone.
Doubt is the title of the movie. Doubt is the meat and marrow of the message. We all want to protect children. But an accusation like this is the death of a career. How do you do what is right?
Sexual Abuse destroys lives; not just the victim's but countless lives that touch theirs. Frequently abused children grow up to be abusers. Certainly their problems impact those who love them.
But the accusation of pedophilia is a stain that does not go away...what do you get when you add a spoonful of wine to a barrel of sewage? Sewage. What do you get when you add a spoonful of sewage to a barrel of wine? Sewage. And thus it is with accusations of pedophilia.
There is a bleak austerity to the cinematography, a simplistic aesthetic. Contrast is used to great effect, not just the black of habits against the white of snow, but the joviality of the brotherhood of the priests, starkly contrasted to the very repressed rule of the nun's lives; their silent meals, their subtle communications.
It is a struggle of nun against priest, old school versus new progressiveness, of certainty versus doubt.
There is no action, no special effects; this is a purely human drama. As such, the performances are everything.
There are four Oscar nominations; five when you count Shanley's nod for Screenplay. These are fine actors. However, every actor has ups and downs. And every one of these is a definite up.
Amy Adams has never been better. Viola Davis has about ten minutes of screen time, and still she earned the Oscar Nod.
But I am blown away by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was nominated for an Oscar in Charlie Wilson's War. He won one for Capote. And I think it is possible he might win another.
As good as he was; Meryl Streep was even better. She has been nominated 15 times. She has won twice (Kramer Vs Kramer, and Sophie's Choice). This could very well be her third win. Her portrayal of Sister Aloysius, fighting for what she is certain is right, fighting against the changes she sees in her world, that she despises, fighting against the tide of hormones in what she is well aware is a losing battle. Yet to think that this is a woman devoid of love is a mistake. Witness her concern and care for Sister Veronica (Alice Drummond), a nun who is going blind. She helps hide the facts so that she will not be shipped away from her home and family in the last days of her life. She is tough, crusty, and a terror, yes. She is not Cruela DeVille. She is masterful. It would be easy to hate Sister Aloysius. Very easy; yet Streep's sure touch with her headstrong character insures a more complex and worthy woman. You understand her, and sympathize, even as you are appalled.
Doubt. We all suffer from it. Sometimes it is the enemy, undermining our faith. Sometimes it is a friend, preventing us from going too far. Sometimes, it binds us together. Sometimes it can tear us apart.
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