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Comedy of Doubt

John Patrick Shanley's comical film of his four-character Pulitzer-winning play "Doubt" is a flamboyantly theatrical sermon on the virtues of conviction. It should be seen in conjunction with a reading of Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling "Blink" because, no matter what the dialog may tell you, it's more an affirmation of gut instinct than an exploration of the title commodity.

You can see why all the adult principals -- Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, Amy Adams as Sister James and Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller -- have been nominated for Oscars (but is Hoffman's a supporting performance or the male lead?). This is juicy stuff, played to the hilt as you'd expect -- and as much for laughs as for melodrama (which I hadn't expected, but which came as a happy surprise).

If it remains more of a theatrical experience than a cinematic one (despite being photographed by Roger Deakins), that's probably because Shanley's ambitions are limited to delivering the "movie version" of his own hit play. I can imagine "Doubt" working more convincingly in the abstract setting of the stage (though I haven't seen it performed that way), where it sported the subtitle: "A Parable." But there's no doubt it's a bake-sale bonanza for the movie actors, who give overtly stylized performances in realistic settings, all goosed-up with stage flourishes -- thunderstorms and balcony-pitched arias and surprise entrances and exits timed to build tension and frustrate satisfaction. (It's said Shanley added some of these devices just for the movie -- which, if you think about it, is you might expect somebody with an intrinsically theatrical sensibility to do to "open up" a play for film.)

What I didn't expect was the outlandishly broad comedy of Streep's "The Devil Wears a Bonnet" performance. I think that is probably a compliment, and I don't think she's getting enough credit for how funny she is. "Doubt" may be a work that touches on Serious Issues (sex abuse in the church, the evils of gossip, the weighing of greater and lesser sins, the obligations of that come with intuition and experience -- and the paradoxes of doubt) but it's also by the guy who wrote "Moonstruck" and "Joe Versus the Volcano." Streep attacks it with sketch-comedy gusto, and there were whole scenes, memorably the inspection of Sister James' classroom and the high-voltage showdowns between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, when I couldn't stop chortling like a schoolboy. I don't believe my laughter was inappropriate:

Flynn: "Where's your compassion?"

Aloysius: "Nowhere you can get at it."

That's a doozy of a punch line, and Streep knows it. (If I'm wrong about that, then there hasn't been a performance this misconceived since Faye Dunaway in "Mommie Dearest.")

But where does the "doubt" come in?

Now, some spoilers.

It's the autumn of 1964. Sister Aloysius, the principal of St. Nicholas in the Bronx, is an old-school nun, concerned with discipline and hierarchy and holding the hard line against a tide of permissiveness. Yet she's selectively willing to work around the rules for the sake of compassion -- looking out for an elderly nun who's going blind, for example. Father Flynn represents the liberal reforms of Vatican II: more accessible, less rigid. And, in Sister Aloysius's view, less serious about his vows. But he's a priest (a man, her political and anatomical superior in the eyes of the Church) and she's a nun (a woman, inherently inferior in the pecking order).

She witnesses something from her office window that instinctively leads her to suspect Father Flynn has been molesting a student. But, at first, she doesn't voice her apprehensions. Instead, she warns the other nuns to be on their guard... in terms so vague they play like paranoid anti-authoritarian farce. Impressionable Sister James notices a few odd behaviors (we don't see what all she sees) that to her suggest improper behavior between Flynn and the school's first and only black student, Donald Miller. She reports her suspicions to Sister Aloysius, who is quickly convinced that Father Flynn is guilty and sets out to prove it -- to herself, at least, even if there's no way to shake the institutional denial-mechanisms of the Church itself.

Though the deck is stacked against her, the conclusion is essentially foregone, because on the screen he is weak and she is strong. In no small part that's because he is embodied by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who tends to emphasize his characters' weaknesses) and she is embodied by Meryl Streep (from whom it is impossible to look away, no matter what character she's playing). Accusations are made, explanations offered (and withheld), rationalizations proposed, ulterior motives questioned.

You might say that "Doubt" is about doubt in the way that irony is about rain on your wedding day. The word is not quite the right one. What is the nature of the un-vanquishable doubt Sister Aloysius suddenly (and inexplicably, non-specifically) avows at the end? She does not doubt that Father Flynn is guilty. She has no remorse about lying to elicit a kind of non-denial confession from him. But does she regret that he got away with it, that he was rewarded with a promotion and will (as she predicted) undoubtedly continue the abuse in his new parish? Does she question her faith in a Church (or a God) that would this to happen, to ensure that it does? (Was she ever that naive?) Does she have misgivings that maybe Donald Harris is not so much better off without Flynn after all?

So, might the film have been more aptly titled... "Misgivings"? "Regret"? "Ambivalence"? "Faith"? "Pragmatism"? What's the difference between what the characters say and what the movie does?

When Donald's mother is summoned to detonate a single-scene bombshell that temporarily rocks Sister Aloysius's complacency, it's not to awaken her feelings of doubt. Whether Father Flynn is molesting her son is of little consequence to Mrs. Miller, who is the voice of "real-world" expediency: 1) Donald doesn't appear to object (he's 12, but she seems to feel the relationship -- whatever it is -- is consensual, and she doesn't want to know any more than that if it can't be proved); 2) it's only until June, when he can get into a good high school; and 3) whatever Father Flynn is doing is nothing compared to what Donald's violently abusive father is doing, or could do, to the boy; 4) everyone has his reasons. Finally, she asks Sister Aloysius what she wants from her... and the Sister can't think of anything.

There's a movie about doubt in there somewhere, but it's about the Millers, not about nuns and priests.

* * * *

I've seen reviews that label Sister Aloysius the "villain" of the piece. Really? John Moore, the theater critic of the Denver Post, compares Sister Aloysius's campaign against Father Flynn to the witchhunt in "The Crucible":

... [There's] disappointingly little doubt in "Doubt." And that makes a troubling play a disappointingly certain film. [...]

I've read the script, seen the play several times and now have seen the film. Doubt exists in the script. Is it possible Father Flynn did it? If so, Sister Aloysius is a hero. If not, she's Mary Warren [of "The Crucible"] in a habit. That doubt is necessary to the work because effective storytelling depends on a certain measure of ambiguity.

But as we learned when the Denver Center Theatre Company staged "Doubt" last year, it's nearly impossible to convey even the slightest possibility that Father Flynn might be guilty on the stage. It's even harder on film: He's a good guy being railroaded by an old-guard biddy steeped in resentment about the second-class standing of women in the church.

Thus, the film becomes a treatise not on doubt versus certainty, but on the nature of evil.

Moore concludes that Sister Aloysius is a fearmonger who comes off as Cruella de Vil or the Wicked Witch of the West, and the film is "a missed opportunity, all the way through to its final scene, which isn't nearly the statement it might have been."

Funny how I can superficially "agree" with his assessment of the last scene, while completely disagreeing with his view of everything that leads up to it. We're both certain that the movie isn't a particularly deft depiction of doubt, yet he thinks it never wavers in its support of Father Flynn and I think it eventually, and unequivocally, endorses Sister Aloysius's suspicions, motives and instincts.

I don't think the last scene works because I think it plays like a schematic "twist" ending. We haven't seen anything to make us believe Sister Aloysius would question the validity of her own judgment about Flynn, her understanding of Church politics (she knows it treats women unfairly), or her trust in God . Her doubts, if she is capable of them, aren't anyplace she -- or the events of this movie -- can get at them. (As I said, this may not be so in a good production of the original play, presented as a parable in a more abstract setting.)

Moore doesn't believe the ending works because he thinks she is a disingenuous character and that the movie is "a gender-based power play" about church politics that lacks the "nuance and complexity" that would be necessary to cause "our own certainty and allegiances [to] shift as the tale progresses."

So, does this indicate that the problematic "Doubt" is, after all, an artful presentation of moral ambiguity? Or that it's just vague? Is it a skillfully balanced drama comedy of conflicting moralities and points of view? Or is it just evasive and scattershot, a guessing game in Catholic drag? After all, doubt should not be confused with a simple lack of clarity.

P.S. Shanley says he was inspired by the non-debate over whether to invade Iraq in 2003:

But the germ of the idea that would become "Doubt" came, not from memories of 1964, but from the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. Shanley was struck by the lack of debate about the pros and cons of invasion. "There was no true discussion going on," he says. "Whichever side people were on, there was such certainty. I thought, 'Am I missing something?' " At times, he says, he felt very lonely. "You want to have a conversation where someone can have an effect on you. But there was nobody to talk to about our ignorance of what was going on."

In this interpretation, Father Flynn (who's hiding something) is Saddam Hussein, Sister Aloysius (who's sure he's hiding something) is the Bush Administration, Sister James (who changes her mind depending on who she's talking to) is the Democratic Party, and Mrs. Miller (who just doesn't want to make things worse) is... France? I'm kidding! It's a parable. Catholics know better than to read parables that literally.

Screenplay excerpt from the ending of "Doubt" here.

Miramax offers the entire screenplay for as a .pdf here [click link to download].

ADDENDUM: In an interview with Streep in the Telegraph, she says there's a scene (not in the play) that she argued ferociously to have cut from the film because, "To me it destroys part of Sister Aloysius's doubt about what she has done. And that was hard for me." [...]

"I wasn't angry. I was speechless, because I really don't think that doubt in increments should be removed from this at all. Doubt is our friend. And once you tip the scales in one direction or another it's very, very dangerous. The thing is calibrated like a tuning fork: it's either A, or it's not A." [...]

"I get these feelings about people. Do you know how you meet certain people and you talk to them for about 10 minutes and you think, 'Ooh - cancer somewhere. Somebody is really sick, or was sick, or died,' you get this feeling of illness or something bad having happened, even if you're talking about something else. What's the offstage event that preceded what they're bringing me? You read behaviour and you see what's compensatory, what's making up for... Comics are the easiest people to read, because there's so much private pain; that's an obvious thing.

"So with Sister Aloysius I thought that probably - and it's in the script - she has seen this kind of abuse before. And I feel that what she saw before was pretty bad. And I think you make a private decision when something like that happens to make sure it doesn't happen again. So to you that reads as judgemental, vindictive - whatever the adjectives you strung out in that sentence."

I try to interrupt, to say that I did not say either 'judgemental' or 'vindictive', but Streep will not be stopped. "You know," she goes on, "some people see scary guys outside the door, and other people don't. And the people who don't are lucky. But the ones who've encountered the scary guys are marked by it for the rest of their lives, and it's hard to be Pollyanna when that happens. So I think that's who Sister Aloysius is. Maybe there was something personally that had happened to her where her faith was shaken. Who knows?" She shrugs. "John [Shanley] didn't tell me any of these things. I made it up for myself."

Unfortunately, the interview doesn't reveal which scene Streep felt should have been cut to restore balance to Sister Aloysius's doubt.

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