To have sinned or not to have sinned? That is the question that most pre-occupies the mind of Sister Aloysius in
John Patrick Shanley's stage to screen adaptation, "Doubt." Starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Doubt"
relays the story of a nun and a priest from two different perspectives on Catholic faith. One is oppressive while the
other, progressive. Both wind up caught on opposite sides of an alleged scandal involving inappropriate behavior with
a young African American student. And it leads to an inquisition of morals and values, character, and faith - not just
in God, but also in themselves. With an all-star cast behind this Pulitzer and Tony award winning production, "Doubt"
is a powerhouse of performances - both on stage and in film. Mercilessly, it immerses its characters in the depths of
certainty and the consequences of blind faith.
Change. In 1964, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy and there in the wake of the Vietnam War, the hopes
and dreams of a nation were slipping away. Faith in God and in each other was dissipating. So much so, that in the
Bronx, at St. Nicholas' Catholic Church, the newly appointed Father Flynn addresses the nature of doubt in his sermon. In
particular, how doubt can be as unifying as faith. And while the message is received openly by the congregation, Sister
Aloysius, the strict headmistress of the Catholic school, leaves suspicious, wondering what would motivate the Father to
discuss doubt. Does he doubt his faith? She even interrogates her fellow nuns at dinner, asking them to be vigilant
and aware of any unusual behavior that might be occurring at the school.
As the tension mounts between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, another school year begins. And with it, a crop of
new and returning students. Friendly and full of charm, Flynn greets the students warmly, while Aloysius watches
quietly like a hawk. Then, later on, one of the new students, Donald Miller, is called to the rectory to see Father
Flynn alone and upon his return, the young and naive Sister James notices a few instances of strange behavior. Without
any substantiation, she relays the news to Sister Aloysius, who, quick to pounce, launches a formal, unrelenting
investigation into Father Flynn's current and prior behavior. And his integrity and sanctity as a priest. All of which
pushes the boundaries of truth, justice, and consequence.
At the heart of virtually every John Patrick Shanley script is a character dilemma fraught with a philosophical or
ethical dilemma. In 1987, there was "Moonstruck," which featured a widowed bookkeeper (Cher) caught between two
men - safe and reliable versus tumultuous and passionate. The true story of the Uruguayan soccer team forced to make
unthinkable decisions after their plane crashes in the Andes in "Alive." The 2002 teleplay, "Live from Baghdad," where
CNN reporters struggle with the ethics and dangers of covering the Gulf War. And who could forget "Joe Versus the
Volcano," in which a hypochondriac, upon learning that he is dying, makes a pact to sail to a far away island and
throw himself into a volcano only to realize along the way, what it truly means to live. In each of these instances,
characters are thrown into complicated or perilous circumstances and forced to make life-altering decisions - decisions
that will forever define who and what they are, for better or for worse.
Such is the case in "Doubt," a film that speaks allegorically about the dangers of moral certainty in 1964 just as it
does today. Using a trio of rich, multi-faceted characters, Shanley makes sure that each confronts their own
demons. Most notably, through a game of ping-pong. Opposite ends of the spectrum, represented by Sister Aloysius, who
errs on the side of guilt. And Sister James, who errs on the side of innocence. The proverbial ping-pong ball is played
by Father Flynn, a character who may be innocent or guilty, but knows full well the dangers posed to his career. As
Sister Aloysius digs deeper, she learns more about herself. And Sister James, after a trip to visit family, begins to
see reality beyond the classroom. But doubt remains the common thread.
One of the most important ingredients in adapting a stage play to a film is finding the proper cast. And here, there is
a powder keg quartet. Meryl Streep delivers her finest performance since "The Devil Wears Prada." As the self-righteous
and assured Sister Aloysius, she poses a formidable threat to anyone who stands in her way, with the cold eyes of a shark
and a cutthroat tongue. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Flynn is a jovial, physical presence ripe for the plucking by Aloysius
and Amy Adams, continuing to hone her craft, provides optimism and innocence soured. But the fourth surprising
performance comes from Viola Davis, who plays Donald Miller's mother with such courage and candor, she changes the
complexion of the story on just a short, 10-minute walk with Sister Aloysius.
For cinefiles, who like concrete conclusions, "Doubt" will disappoint, leaving much unsettled. But then again, it's
hard to argue with Shanley's intent, a film whose primary purpose is to emphasize how characters react when confronted
with uncertainty. It's an excellent experiment, allowing individuals to respond based on their own set of core
values. And audiences to draw their own conclusions. However, in the film's final moments, rather than stay the
course, a revelation is made by one of the lead characters that seems to derail or contradict everything that came
before it. Unsettling, for sure.
Nevertheless, "Doubt" is a powerful, thought provoking film backed by a stellar cast. A cautionary tale, it warns of
the dangers of blindly following assumptions based on a set of circumstances rather than the whole truth. And the
serious outcomes of making such assumptions, like character assassination. Right or wrong, fact or fiction, we are all
led by our values and our moral convictions on the way to achieving greater knowledge - namely, the truth. Doubting is
the first part of the equation. After all, it should be noted, "Doubt is the beginning, not the end of wisdom" (Proverbs).