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"Mercilessly, it immerses its characters in the depths of certainty and the consequences of blind faith."
 
"(Viola Davis) changes the complexion of the story on just a short, 10-minute walk with Sister Aloysius."
"A powerful, thought provoking film backed by a stellar cast."
Doubt  

Cast

Sister Aloysius: Meryl Streep
Father Flynn: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Sister James: Amy Adams
Mrs. Miller: Viola Davis
Donald: Joseph Foster II
Review December 2008

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).



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