Tuesday, December 30, 2008


"Waiting for Sister Aloysius"

I'm a recovering Catholic who finally walked out the stained-glass double doors after the pedophile priest racket was revealed. My faith had been shaken before, back when I was a kid and couldn't reconcile all those souls condemned to Purgatory for eating meat on Fridays, when we, the living, were freed of forced fish-stick consumption after Vatican II. But the pedophile priests was like sprinkling Holy Water on a vampire for me. That the Church hierarchy would shuffle child molesters within the system to keep the offenses quiet exposed the rottenness of the Church hierarchy right up to the Pontiff. That those priests would take the Authority of the Church, and people's Faith and the trust their flock had instilled in them, and betray it for their predatory ends...well, Jesus wept. Probably tears of blood.

So, here comes "Doubt," the film version of John Patrick Shanley's Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play (Shanley wrote "Five Corners," and "Moonstruck" and directed the surreal and neglected "Joe Versus the Volcano"*) In it, knuckle-rapping Catholic School principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) confronts Vatican II subscriber Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) over her suspicions about his dealings with his students. It seems Sister James (Amy Adams, maybe a bit too sweet) has suspicions about Flynn after one of her students (Joseph Foster) returns from a rectory visit "acting strangely." Sister Aloysius already thinks Flynn's a bit lax in his philosophies, and she begins actively campaigning for his ouster—a dangerous position for her to take as all the nuns are subordinates to the priests. Still, she clings to whatever control she can and exploits the fear she inspires in her students to her ends, which justifies her mean-spiritedness.

It's one of those plays that makes you want to act. The parts are juicey and can be played any number of ways, and the cast is always on top of their roles: Streep, is all pinched-nerve as Aloysius, and obviously relishes the power of the role (probably as much as Aloysius does); Hoffman is a cypher, betraying as little emotion as he can (when it's not to his advantage) until he's braying at the top of his lungs (when he and Streep finally take the gloves off, it's almost too much, the tension building to it has been so intense). They're great, but Viola Davis quietly, resignedly breaks your heart as the mother who wants the best for her son, whatever it takes.

If I have a complaint with the movie it's that there's a bit too much weather happening in the background that comments directly to the matters on-screen. It's gilding the lily meteorologically to have implied threats accompanied by thunder, heated discussions thrummed by the rattling of a downpour and the conflicts of conscience buttressed by a leaf-filled wind-gust. One expects the choir from "The Color Purple" to come marching down the street singing "Looks Like God's Trying to Tell You Something." Shanley has had enough experience directing; he should know when they talk about "opening up" a play they're not talking about the Heavens. His background choices are too "on the nose"—like having a radio playing just the right song to reinforce the obvious. God is supposed to work in mysterious ways.

After it's debut, Shanley changed the name of the play to "Doubt: a Parable," which is essentially true as it's a story about humans that teaches a religious principal. And the implications, shifts, and nuances are so rich and subject to interpretation that the one-act play invariably becomes two acts with the debate it inspires in the audience.** What is Faith? What is Devotion? Can a rigorous belief sustain itself when the very text of it changes and the institution that inspires it betrays it? And what does that say of the Institution that compromises its own teachings?

Doubt does not imply complacency. But "Doubt" does.

"Doubt" is a full-price ticket.

* He also wrote the screenplays for "Alive" and "Congo," but the less said about them the better.

** It happened as soon as the credits started in the theater where I saw it--"Did I miss something?" said the woman in front of me to her husband. I casually told her what she hadn't considered, and she and her husband looked at me in shock. "Oh my God!" she said, and that started a lively discussion between my row and their row about who was right and the implications. I'm starting to fall in love with this theater, where the audiences are so engaged.

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