Mother superior jumped the gun


A parish priest stands in front of his flock, sets his features sternly, and then launches into his weekly sermon. He tells of a woman who goes to confession, and asks her priest if gossip was a sin. Of course, replies the priest, and for penance, he instructs the woman to go onto the roof of her house and cut apart a pillow with a knife. This she does, with feathers flying everywhere. The next time she goes to confession, the priest then tells her to go around her neighborhood and gather up all the feathers. But father, replies the woman, that’s impossible.

That, says the priest, is gossip.

Delivering this sermon is Philip Seymour Hoffman, in fine form, in the film “Doubt,” a sort of Catholic-school “Rashomon” by writer and director John Patrick Shanley, based on his award-winning play of the same name. Shanley’s film explores the deadly power of innuendo and a very postmodern topic — the impossibility of knowing the truth. But he approaches the subject in a populist, quotidian way. The problem with “truth” — and Shanley rams this home in the film — is that people tend to believe what they want to believe: Addicts refuse to admit they have a problem; black America thought O.J. was innocent; Bernie Madoff sure seemed like a nice, smart guy; and the American Catholic Church spent decades denying there was sexual abuse going on.

Director John Patrick Shanley
Run Time 105 minutes
Language English

That last point is the one Shanley picks up on in “Doubt,” but he creditably avoids making his film the church-bashing screed it could have been.

“Doubt” is basically a he-said/she-said two-hander between Philip Seymour Hoffman’s jovial Father Flynn, a parish priest who seems a touch too friendly with the boys, and Meryl Streep’s stern Sister Aloysius, a school principal who suspects, on the flimsiest of evidence, that Father Flynn has been handling the merchandise. Caught in the middle is Sister James (Amy Adams), a naive young nun who likes Father Flynn but finds herself dominated by Sister Aloysius and her vendetta.

Set in the Bronx circa 1964, Shanley evokes its Irish-Catholic milieu well, from kids being awakened at dawn to serve as altar boys at morning mass, to the eagle-eyed nun patrolling the church pews to scold dozing children. It was a time of change for the church, as for society, and the split between liberals and traditionalists was acute after the reforms of Pope Paul VI and the Vatican council. Father Flynn seems emblematic of the easygoing younger generation, seeking to be more approachable and in touch with the community, while Sister Aloysius is strictly old guard, remote and intimidating, opposed to even such a benign change as ball-point pens.

Aloysius dislikes Flynn from the outset, for what he represents and maybe even for his popularity. When Flynn gives a sermon on the topic of doubt — “What do you do when you’re not sure?” — Aloysius raises an eyebrow and asks all the nuns to keep an eye on him. When Sister James suspects a furtive meeting between Flynn and Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the school’s only (and bullied) black pupil, she dutifully reports it to Sister Aloysius, but is appalled when Aloysius presumes Flynn’s guilt before any evidence is in.

Given what we now know about the American Catholic Church’s wide- ranging abuse scandal, it’s easy to imagine where this film is going before it even starts. But Shanley’s less interested in pedophile-priest bashing than in suspicion and proof, and what happens when you have one but not the other. In that sense, it’s perhaps the last film of the Bush era, when acting without proof became policy across the board.

As a director, Shanley overdoes it with the raging winds and rains, such that it seems like god himself is commenting on the proceedings. And a scene between Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother, played by Viola Davis, has been universally praised by the critics for Davis’ wrenching performance, except I truly, well doubt any real mother would say that potential abuse is OK because “it’s only until June,” when Donald graduates.

The most brilliant move in “Doubt” is its casting, which is designed to mess with our preconceptions. Casting Hoffman, known for a bunch of gay roles (“Boogie Nights,” “Capote,” “Flawless”) and playing freaks (“Happiness”), as a priest is something that immediately sets us on edge. Could he possibly be just a nice guy with kids? Well, yeah, maybe. Then there’s Streep, fresh off her martinet boss role in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Her pinched, intolerant nun is exactly the sort of disciplinarian the last four decades of Hollywood movies have taught us to jeer. Except she may be right, and really trying to protect her kids.

“Doubt” drops us into the quagmire of trusting your instincts, and the ending of the film comes as something of a challenge to the viewer: Who we end up believing is simply who we like more. And that’s something as true in real life as it is in this film. What that means for the concept of “truth” is the payoff of this exceptionally well-constructed film.