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THE OPENING SCENES OF DOUBT take us to outer borough New York City in the year after JFK's death. Technically it's almost the middle of the '60s, but it's really still the same 1950s that began in 1946 when the first recently discharged veteran realized he never wanted to see his uniform again, and didn't really end until the Beatles first U.S. tour ended at San Francisco's Cow Palace in the late summer of 1965, and every teenager in the country woke up with the certainty that they were actually a different species from their parents.

The bonus features included with the DVD reveal that the film was shot on location in the Bronx, on the streets where writer and director John Patrick Shanley grew up, but we're meant to understand that it's a different world we're seeing, one about to be swept away, even if the buildings are still standing today. A boy is roused by his mother early on a Sunday morning to serve at mass, making his way through the empty streets to the sacristy, where he's joined by another boy - an African-American we'll soon know as Donald Miller - and Fr. Flynn, the priest.

The scene-setting is familiar enough. The postwar interregnum - that scant twenty years of apparent social stability between the end of a world war and the dawn of the '60s proper - is normally portrayed as a sort of Rome before the fall, a prosperous and orderly place rife with internal tension and besieged by enemies just over the borders in the wilderness beyond. The metaphor isn't entirely appropriate, though - the barbarians weren't, we know now, out there in the forest.

Fr. Flynn, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, gives a gripping sermon on doubt, drawing on his congregation's vivid memories of their fear and confusion after the president's assassination, while a nun in the distinctive black habit of the Sisters of Charity prowls the aisles of the church, hissing at boys and girls talking and dozing to sit up straight and pay attention. She's Sister Aloysius, and as played by Meryl Streep, she'll be the priest's antagonist for the rest of the film, a role she's clearly rehearsed for as the rod and scourge of St. Nicholas School.

At the end of Flynn's sermon, Streep's Aloysius pauses for an ostentatious moment before crossing herself, then presses her fingers against her mouth and looks furtively either way. It's a showy, actorly bit of business, like the flattened vowels in her outerborough accent, and there's a lot of this sort of thing in Streep's performance.

We see her next, prowling the balcony above the schoolyard, summoning students to her office for infractions against her myriad rules and predilictions, which include strong aversions to everything from ballpoint pens to Frosty The Snowman. "The dragon is hungry," Fr. Flynn whispers to Sister James, a sweet young nun who gets drafted by Sister Aloysius as her aide in a campaign against Fr. Flynn, whose obvious reformist zeal has made him the enemy, and who very quickly furnishes her with fuel when circumstances suggest that he's taken an inappropriate interest in Donald Miller.

The pedophile priest has pretty much displaced the gluttonous, drunken monk and the corrupt and cynically worldly bishop as the archetype people turn to when they want to take a cheap shot at the Catholic church. Thanks to the notariety of several high profile prosecutions over the last generation, and the abysmally poor handling of these cases by church authorities in America and Rome, this cudgel has been given more than merely satirical weight, and invoking the image of a priest abusing both his vows and the trust of the community he serves, not to mention the children of that community, is the first step on the way to suggesting doubts about the moral authority the Church can claim to presume.

Nuns are another abiding target for parody, and have been ripely exploited for comic effect by everyone from George Carlin and Cheech & Chong through to the sexual hysterics in Ken Russell's The Devils, and the "naughty nuns" that have been a pornographic staple for centuries. Even among Catholics, nuns are poorly understood, especially nowadays as they've largely disappeared from their onetime roles on the frontlines of education and nursing. It's not surprising, then, that even Shanley, who dedicates the film to the nun for whom Sister James is named, can't move much beyond the usual preconceptions of life in orders, cliches not too far from Cheech & Chong's Sister Mary Elephant.

Shanley draws the conflict between Flynn and Sister Aloysius with a broad brush, from the comment about "the dragon," to the very pointed scenes contrasting the priests of St. Nicholas at dinner (flush with red meat and drink, laughing uproariously while music plays in the background) with the nuns (picking silently at plates of colourless victuals while dreading the moment when Sister Aloysius rings a little bell that signals the end of the meal and the beginning of a discussion on a subject of her choice.) The men enjoy the benefits of what looks like a decent men's club, while the women suffer both medieval discomforts and the emotional tyranny - peculiar to female society, as far as I can tell - of whomever among them holds the high ground.

The clash is made inevitable by the changes about to surge through the Church thanks to the Second Vatican Council, convened two years before the film opens, and due to close the following year. Fr. Flynn is clearly in sympathy with the aims of John XXIII's modernization of Catholicism, while Sister Aloysius is the reactionary, intent on a rear guard action to preserve the smallest manifestations of its authority while the larger ones are being changed utterly or swept aside despite her.

Shanley is clearly sympathetic with Fr. Flynn, and expects that we will be, too, but he's a modern artist, and he won't let us off easily. Amy Adams' Sister James is clearly meant to be the audience's surrogate, and her agonies about Fr. Flynn and Donald Miller are inflamed as she's tossed between the priest and the nun, the latter compelling her by duty, the other through his sympathetic nature. It's Sister James who moves from bringing the first evidence against Fr. Flynn to the older nun and sparking her crusade against him, to defending him emotionally, in defiance of Sister Aloysius.

Sister James isn't present, however, for the two crucial scenes that Shanley puts at the heart of his story. In the first, Sister Aloysius brings her suspicions about the priest to the boy's mother; Viola Davis' performance netted her a well-deserved Oscar nomination, for her wounded, wary response to the nun's insistence on telling her of her suspicions. The scene is clearly meant to shock; far from being outraged, Davis is resigned, even grateful, that an older man has seen fit to protect her son.

She's all too aware of the boy's "nature," as is her husband, who beats him. "You can't hold a child responsible for what God gave him to be," she tells the clearly confused nun. "My son needs some man to care about him, and to see him through the way he wants to go." In any case, whatever's going on will only last until June, after which the boy's off to high school.

It's not long until Fr. Flynn confronts Sister Aloysius. The scene plays out with just the two characters, alone in a single room, and betrays the film's origin in Shanley's stage play. He rages at her insistence on pursuing what he insists can be simply explained, to which she can only defend herself by saying that, lacking hard evidence, "I have my certainties." He evokes priestly authority that supersedes her own, bellowing that her vows are of obedience - to the church hierarchy, not to God, he seems to insinuate.

Finally, she plays her trump card - she's made calls to his previous parish, where a nun attested that he'd had to leave after another similar incident. This clearly defeats Flynn; he makes a final plea to her sense of compassion, to no avail, and she leaves him alone to write his resignation.

After we see Flynn giving his farewell sermon, leaving the altar to shake hands with his parishioners - a very Vatican II gesture, presaging the homespun vestments, felt banners, altar girls and folk masses to come - the film ends in a winter scene, where Sister James finds Sister Aloysius sitting on a bench in the tiny courtyard where Fr. Flynn had earlier convinced the younger nun of his innocence. She's been called away by a family emergency, and missed the priest's hasty exit. The older nun informs her that he's moved on to a new parish, and a position as pastor - a promotion, in effect.

She'd laid out her suspsicions about Fr. Flynn to the monsignor, but he'd dismissed them. She remains unrepentant about what she's done, though she confesses to Sister James that she'd lied about the phone call to the nun at Flynn's previous parish. No matter, she smirks, obviously very pleased with herself - "His resignation was his confession." - but the younger nun is appalled at the lie.

As an actress, Streep has increasingly come to rely on discrete bits of business - an accent, a gesture, a very calculated reading of a scene - to flesh out her characters, though they've cohered less and less over the course of whole films, and her Sister Aloysius is the most perfect example so far. She's worked out so many key components of her character - a frustrated intelligence that manifests itself in impatience, even disdain, toward the other nuns, and a social awkwardness that has come to rely on the strict observance of social convention and the dignity of position in her little world.

She certainly has the nun's conviction and pride thickly inlaid into the skin of the character's architecture, which is why it comes as such a shock at the end when, confronted with the obvious dismay the younger nun expresses at her lie, she breaks down, awkwardly clutching at her crucifix and sobbing, "Oh Sister James - I have doubts. I have such doubts!" The camera pulls back - Godlike - to survey the two women alone in the snowy little courtyard as a choir - an Anglican one - bursts into a hymn ("Come, thou Redeemer of the Earth") and the credits roll, finally ending on the single word, white uppercase letters on black: DOUBT.

At the beginning of Sister Aloysius' crusade against Fr. Flynn, after Sister James intimates her first suspicions against the priest, the older nun tries to strengthen the younger one's resolve by telling her that "When you take a step to address a wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God - but in his service." She repeats this again during the final scene, adding - ominously, and obviously too late - that "of course, there is a price." It's obviously very near the crux of whatever moral calculus Shanley used to construct his story, and I've been thinking about this for days since I watched the film, though I still haven't anything like a clue what it's actually supposed to mean.

For that matter, I can't imagine just what Shanley is trying to say with this film. I only know - it's hardly subtle - that it's about doubt, and that the writer obviously believes that an easy conclusion would betray that agenda. At different times I thought the film was trying to say something cogent about pedophilia, or the role of women in the church, or even Vatican II, but in the end the only thing that Shanley bears down on with any conviction is the single word of his title, whose very meaning elides conclusions or clarity.

Until he tries to silence Sister Aloysius by belligerently insisting that her vows mean obedience to the Church's middle management, Fr. Flynn is unstintingly sympathetic, and the vision he enthusiastically paints for Sister James of the Church he wants to see - open, inclusive, an expression of God's love - is a hard one to gainsay, especially as the alternative is embodied by Sister Aloysius: stern, capricious, censorious, fearful. Shanley might want us to savour our doubts, but in the end he doesn't leave much room for doubt that Flynn has been molesting boys, even if this was only confirmed by Sister Aloysius' deceitful bluff.

In this light, all of Flynn's talk about love should become coloured with a retroactive sleaziness, like the TV evangelist whose pleas to support God's work are revealed to have mostly fattened his bank account, or the riffs on free love in a utopian society by radical men that mostly just freed them from the responsibilities of paternity. Still, I don't have much doubt that Shanley is as attracted to Flynn's reformed church proclaiming its mission of love as Sister James is at the end of their scene together in the courtyard, but what does this mean?

The only character with any unquestionable moral authority in the film is Viola Davis as Donald Miller's mother, and her resignation in the face of Sister Aloysius' allegations about Flynn and her son is portrayed by Shanley as either pragmatic or enlightened; there isn't much room for doubt that she might be wrong, or that the words being put in her mouth by the playwright are cynical, as that possiblity isn't at all suggested by Davis' performance, or the iconic stature a black woman presumes in a liberal film about a lone black student in a white school in the civil rights era.

So is Shanley saying that the Church - in the early '60s as now, based on the rule that there's really no such thing as a period film - should (like the contemporary Sisters of Charity beatifically profiled in one of the DVD's bonus features) abandon their habits of authority in pursuit of a vision of a church devoted to a message of love, and that NAMBLA shall lead them there? I seriously doubt it, but Shanley is so clearly unwilling to really explore the implications of anything suggested by his characters that he leaves the door open for us to imagine this obscene possibility.

For a man so intent on sowing doubt, Shanley fills the story with touches that are meant to make us feel uneasy, even anxious, like the horror movie camera tilts at the beginning of Flynn's scene with Sister James, or the roaring winds and violent storms that batter the characters and buildings, and hint at the coming cataclysm that we know is about to overwhelm the school, its students, their parents and teachers as the '60s pick up momentum.

At the beginning of the pair of scenes that comprise the story's dramatic meat, we follow a boy being sent by Sister James to Sister Aloysius office, and walking into the brewing conflict between Flynn and the older nun. He's bewildered by the impatience with which the adults treat him as he's dismissed and sent back to class, and mutters "bullshit" under his breath before snapping at Sister James to leave him alone. The boy is clearly deputized to embody anyone who lived under - and fell away from - the Church in the '60s and '70s, but we know now that they became the barbarians who sacked and pillaged the fragile social stasis of the postwar '50s, for good or ill.

In hindsight, the lasting effects of the revolutionary excesses of the '60s and '70s have been far from salutary, and it has to be remembered that the most recent cases of sexual abuse by priests happened in the aftermath of Vatican II reforms, and not in the authoritative Church culture defended in its waning days by Sister Aloysius. The scenario of a nun trying to expose priestly abuse and being ignored by bishops intent on covering it up might just as well have been set 25 years in the future, with Sister Aloysius being replaced by an older Sister James, no longer in her severe habit but dressed, like the latter-day Sisters in the DVD bonus feature, in the comfortable and stylish clothes of a rich widow or senior academic.

It would, of course, have been a very different film, and one where Shanley would have had far less leeway to indulge in his ultimately unsatisfying and indulgent exploration of doubt.

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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved


i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

rick -at- rickmcginnis.com



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