Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Doubt (2008)

John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is downright obstreperous in its clinging to theatrical metaphor and insularity. It is tightly-wound and compactly unfurled, finding a powerful dramatic rhythm for its eventful tale that recalls such theatrical screen transfers as A Streetcar Named Desire and A Long Day's Journey into Night by Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet respectively. The film has the unmistakable integument of a play made cinematic, with autumnal and mutedly chiaroscuro cinematography by Roger Deakins and an insidiously clamant score by Howard Shore. Written for the screen and directed by the play's playwright, John Patrick Shanley, the film is respectably confident. Shanley's acclaimed Broadway play (which won both a Pulitzer and Tony) in this context serves as the womb from which his film emerges. Marinated in minimalism, Doubt is no less accomplished for proudly wearing its restraint. And yet the film is not truly restrained, but rather almost endearingly obstinate in its framework.

The year in which Doubt takes place is 1964. It is at the height of the three-year Second Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, broadly known as Vatican II. The world is at a crossroads, and so too is the Church. At a Catholic parish in the Bronx, three variations of modern Catholicism are examined. Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the unremittingly stern disciplinarian Saint Nicholas Catholic school principal whose menacing roving movements throughout the campus instill tremendous fear in students. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the pivotal Father Flynn, a liberal secularist whose modernism immediately worries Sister Aloysius. Amy Adams is Sister James, the nun teacher who every student wishes to have, an extremely kindhearted and naïve woman whose role as Sister Aloysius' subordinate—taken in under Sister Aloysius' nearly maternal wing—clashes with her inclination to believe in the inherent decency of Father Flynn.

As the film commences, the sights and sounds of a bleakly wintry morning, with parishioners entering to hear their priest, leave an indelible impression. A shot in which the church is framed, with a stream of individuals entering the austere House of God, recalls Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light: the depressively bitter weather of God's earth juxtaposed with His sanctuary. (Bergman's Protestant testing of the soul featured another man of God wracked by doubt.) The weather is a key thematic touchstone, with the bizarre windiness noted by several characters, most especially Sister Aloysius, who, at one point, melancholically remarks as though she herself is specifically overwhelmed by it, “The wind has changed!” In the final homily of Father Flynn's—always somewhat strangely referred to as the less singularly Catholic sermon—he remarks that a “wind... guides us...” In another piece of portentousness, a tree branch has fallen from a campus tree due to the stormy weather.

The relationship between the doggedly pursuant principal and progressive priest is symbolized, like nearly all plot mechanics of the picture, quite emphatically. One such sequence plays against the background of a cat quickly catching and disposing of a troublesome rodent while the pendulous Sister James listens to Sister Aloysius's game plan for ridding Saint Nicholas of Father Flynn. A recurrently errant light in Sister Aloysius's office is amusing but unnecessary. These are metaphors that should have been excised in the transition from stage to screen, as they, in their respective forms, require the actors to supply expository dialogue that makes the film all the less realistic. Certain visually linguistic shots ring completely true. When Father Flynn appears to be in trouble with the undeviating Sister Aloysius, Shanley nonchalantly frames the priest in a medium shot with a boy sitting on the bench adjacent to the principal's office. The scene speaks volumes about the dynamics at play.

At first glance, Sister Aloysius is almost humorously dour. She seems to detest anything that gives life any comfort or solace, including sugar cubes, cough drops (which she dismisses as candy), ballpoint pens, pagan heresy in the form of the song “Frosty the Snowman.” Her vehemence threatens to reduce her to villainy. Between Streep's challengingly empathetic interpretation and Shanley's rigorously even-handed treatment, however, Sister Aloysius is actually far from monstrous. She is shown to genuinely care for the children who fear and loathe her, fervently believing that they must be held to as high standards as possible for them to be good Catholics. Truly suspecting Father Flynn of being a pedophile she is repulsed by the possible specter of a man of God using his place in the society and Catholic heirarchy. When Sister James points out that the children all fear the principal, Streep's delivery of the line—“That's how it works”—excellently and succinctly conveys Sister Aloysius's perspective. In the case of a particularly troublemaking youngster, it is learned that Sister Aloysius's suspicions—that he bloodied his own nose so he could leave school early—were correct. Formerly married to a man lost in Italy during World War II, Sister Aloysius may indeed be Shanley's take on the zeal of the convert.

Viola Davis gives an impassioned but meticulously modulated supporting performance as the mother of the only black child at Saint Nicholas, who just so happens to be the boy Sister Aloysius believes has been taken advantage of by Father Flynn. Shanley draws a stimulating portrait of the double-edged sword of race in America. Sister Aloysius is taken aback when she hears the mother's statements, which amount to excusing any such relationship between Father Flynn and the boy so long as the child is allowed to make it to June (in another, subtler emphasis on the seasonal impact of the weather), and graduation. As the mother tells Sister Aloysius, she and the boy's father believe the boy's sexual inclinations veer toward homosexuality. The father's hatred of homosexuality in his son compels him to beat his child. The mother informs Sister Aloysius that if this scandal surfaces the father will kill the boy. Shanley's sweeping inclusion of race in the equation contributes to the setting of the film's time and place (as Father Flynn reminds, it is a year after the Kennedy assassination). It is a superb culling of sociological resources.

There are some abrading missteps. The film takes place in 1964, during Vatican II. And yet Father Flynn's homilies are portrayed as so secular and detached from Scripture that it would be difficult to find such seemingly laical homilies in a Catholic service even today. If the parts of the three homilies depicted are to be viewed as merely parts, not totals, it would have served Shanley well to make this clear. Otherwise, they make Sister Aloysius's complaints ring all the truer, and cast Father Flynn in an unrealistically fanciful light. The Brechtian structure of the play and film's drama makes the homilies all the more obviously directed at the audience (as they evidently were on the stage). This is certainly not an illegitimate approach, though cinematically, without greater context, makes the device far more diaphonously schematic.

Nevertheless, Shanley's fixation on cleanliness, most limpidly brought to the forefront by Father Flynn's lecture to a group of boys about their dirty fingernails, supplies a nuanced shelter under which much of the tale plays out. In a statement apparently aimed at Father Flynn's questioned masculinity, Shanley's camera closes in on the man's unusually long fingernails, which he favors. It is rather intriguing that many of the physical tics and mannerisms employed by Hoffman seem to largely confirm Sister Aloysius's worst suspicions rather than refute them. And yet can these read as simple playwright misdirections? It is left ambiguous, with the viewer left to decide.

Doubt succeeds primarily because of Shanley's conviction. It is this artistic conviction that finds itself projected in a work entitled Doubt that paradoxically comes to the forefront. In Father Flynn's first homily, he asks, “What do you do, when you're not sure?” Shanley is sure of what he is after. And he makes it clear to every viewer, attracting and alienating along the way.


nick plowman said...

I. cannot. wait. to. see. this.

Alexander Coleman said...

Can't wait for you to see it, too, Nick!

Moses Hernandez said...

As a Catholic myself I'm very interested in seeing this. I'll see anything with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep apart much less put together. Terrific review that seems to go into the deep end of this movie's pool.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Moses.

tim watts said...

Brilliant review, Alexander. I agree with everything you write. It is not a perfect movie but it is very good.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the kind words, Tim.

It sounds like we completely agree on Doubt.

Craig Kennedy said...

Another deeply observed review from Mr. Coleman.

As a fan of the film and as one who vigorously defends its perceived lack of cinematic qualities, I love how you evoke Sidney Lumet. What's so cinematic about 12 Angry Men? But it's a great movie. There are certain critics (coughcoughArmondWhitecough) who hate Lumet partly because he seems stage bound, but this is a criticism I reject almost entirely. If a film is stilted and clunky to the point it draws you out of the drama, then I'd agree that staginess is bad, but I certainly don't think that's the case with Doubt.

You seem troubled here that the film tends to preach (no pun intended) a little too obviously directs its message at the audience...and I agree the film could've used an extra measure of subtlety for my taste, but really this was the only thing keeping it from getting a 5-star rating from me. (also, I kinda liked the business with the light as unimportant as it may have been)

Also, not having been to mass since I started wearing long pants, I wasn't troubled by the inauthentic handling of Flynn's homilies. Also, for me, religion itself was just a fertile setting for the themes of the film.

As I tried to articulate in my own review, faith provides a high contrast backdrop for the playing out of a drama that probes the uncomfortable gray areas between doubt and certainty.

The moral and intellectual gray areas have fascinated me particularly in the last 8 years under an administration that does not perceive any.

In the end, as you were, I was troubled by a few tiny imperfections in the film, but even if the imperfections were stronger, I would've loved the film simply because of Streep's finely tuned performance. As you note, she takes a cartoon and turns her into a human being. Much of the credit goes to Shanley's drawing of the character, but it is Streep who brings Aloysius to flesh and blood life and it's just a pleasure to watch.

I know these days "great" acting isn't supposed to call attention to itself, but sometimes the performer is so good and entertaining, you can't help but be drawn to it. Aloysious in 2008 is very much for me like Daniel Plainview in 2007. An unlikeable and dangerous character but one with a strongly defined human element buoyed by a fiercely entertaining performance.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the highly thoughtful and comprehensive comment, Craig.

The truth is I probably dwell too extensively on the flaws, which are mostly rather small. In the end, I agree with you that the film plays itself out quite cinematically. It's not Lawrence of Arabia and it's not trying to be. Shanley and Deakins (and I'm suspecting the latter helped the former out enormously) created a "cinematic" world out of this one parish quite beautifully, I thought.

Again, I agree that Father Flynn's homilies are perfect fodder from which to comment on the ongoing story. I was especially impressed by how Shanley utilized the second, middle service, and Father Flynn's condemnation of gossip. The shot of the feathers flying in the wind--something that could not be done in the play--was, especially given the context of the priest's homily, breathtakingly rich.

Shanley capably touched on many key Catholic touchstones such as "guilt," and, yes, "doubt," and beyond the plot and the questions it, itself, brings forth ("Was he guilty? Was he not?"), in the end I give Shanley credit for using his story to examine these matters in a way that could be perceived as particularly Catholic, or religious, or even more broadly issues that exist in all realms of humanity.

As to your final point about Streep, yes, she deserves high, high praise. I can't speak to the stage performance, but she brought a fragile nuance to the character that was completely necessary to make Sister Aloysius both a believable and empathetic character. She was in many ways "dangerous" and "unlikable" but like you say, entirely transfixing.

Sam Juliano said...

Finally, I am here at the cozy and challenging confines of CCC, and I am reading the DOUBT review. I saw Craig's terrific comments. I will have a response momentarily.

Alexander Coleman said...

Haha, Sam, I'm happy to hear you're all warm and cozy in the confines of Coleman's Corner. Hahaha...

I, however, must flee at this moment. Nevertheless, I look forward to what I am sure will be an enlightening comment when I return this evening. Take care...

Sam Juliano said...

"The relationship between the doggedly pursuant principal and progressive priest is symbolized, like nearly all plot mechanics of the picture, quite emphatically. One such sequence plays against the background of a cat quickly catching and disposing of a troublesome rodent while the pendulous Sister James listens to Sister Aloysius's game plan for ridding Saint Nicholas of Father Flynn. A recurrently errant light in Sister Aloysius's office is amusing but unnecessary. These are metaphors that should have been excised in the transition from stage to screen, as they, in their respective forms, require the actors to supply expository dialogue that makes the film all the less realistic. Certain visually linguistic shots ring completely true. When Father Flynn appears to be in trouble with the undeviating Sister Aloysius, Shanley nonchalantly frames the priest in a medium shot with a boy sitting on the bench adjacent to the principal's office. The scene speaks volumes about the dynamics at play."

This paragraph, appearing at the center of Alexander Coleman's review is the most vital one as it examines the centerpiece of the film (and stage play before it): the relationship of the combative and mistrustful sister and the embattled priest, bringing in fascinating discourse of dynamics, metaphors and framing, issues that would at the end of the day enhance the cinematic elements that would at least nominally transport a stage conscription.

Indeed in the first paragraph the entire issue is broached about 'theatrical metaphors' and 'insularity' that provides a perfect lead-in to the fascinating analysis of the most crucial paragraph. The 'minimalism' and 'restrait' are much in evidence, as is the superb observation: "autumnal and mutedly chiaroscuro cinematography" that defines the visual scheme.
I applaud you for remembering Ingmar Bergman's magisterial WINTER LIGHT (now the piece de resistance of the Faith trilogy)for the similarity in presenting men 'wrecked by doubt' in their faith. Another apt reference would certainly be the case of the Priest of Ambricourt in Bresson's masterpiece JOURNAL D'UN CURE DE CAMPAGNE, where the victim of consumption has actually lost his faith. That extraordinary work also uses weather compellingly as a thematic device.
Your discussion of the film's captivating performances is detailed and dead-on, and I completely concur with your exthusiastic appraisal of Viola davis' brief, but unforgettable turn in the film's greatest individual scene.
Your wrap-up also provides some fascinating food for thought, even with that mild (is it an anachronism?) of the Vatican II.

In the stage play (which I was fortunate enough to see) the priest was almost certainly innocent; in the film the balance leans the other way. The film and play's refusal however, to confirm any certainties are what will always attract people to it.

As always, a thought-provoking and scholarly piece that authoritatively examines the central themes, conflicts and characters in fullfilling fashion. Kudos.

Alexander Coleman said...

In relation to Craig's comment, I'd also just like to say that I find Armond White's hatred of Sidney Lumet to be one of the crazier sides of White's. And I agree, Craig, that 12 Angry Men is indeed richly intelligent, and Lumet's visual comprehension and talents are on full display in that, his debut film, slowly making the room in which almost all of the drama takes place suffocating in its claustrophobia and frustration for the characters. Lumet's gradual lowering of the camera, for instance, increases the tension enormously.

Sam, thank you so much for the very thorough examination of the review. I am so glad you found it interesting... And thank you a great deal for bringing forth the comparison to the Bresson picture, which surely should be on anyone's mind as well.

It is also of immense help to hear the differences between the stage play, which you were fortunate to see and the film. Perhaps the difference reflects a change in temparement in Shanley since the play's creation. Who knows? It's an intriguing discussion to be had unto itself, however.

Thank you so very much again. And I agree--Winter Light is the most magnificent picture of Bergman's Faith Trilogy. This thread is making me want to revisit in the coming days, haha.

tim watts said...

Your analysis of the Catholic mass is interesting and I'm totally ignorant of all of it. Amazing. Could you go into the homily bit some more?

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, I'm just about to run out for a bit, Tim, but to make it short and sweet, the homily is traditionally comprised of the priest reading from Scripture, and then using the Scripture he has read as the template for his service.

It's fundamentally a Catholic tradition among others; unlike the Protestant emphasis of sola scriptura, Catholicism uses Scripture as the metaphorical springboard from which to draw conclusions--with the priest clarifying "God's Word" to his congregation, etceteras. I hope that helps some--I really must leave! Sorry.

mc said...

I saw this and thought it was good. Not perfect but good. Streep and Hoffman are great together. Adams shows Catch Me If You Can was no fluke. Excellent review, Alexander. Your descriptions of the characters and the campus are great.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you kindly, mc. Glad you enjoyed the film.

Frederick said...

I am Catholic too, but I gave up believeing much of this years ago. This is quite a great review, as you leave no stone unturned! I agree that the acting is what makes this most memorable. Your exploration of the films themes are fascinating.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Alexander, I have come late to this discussion as I only saw Doubt a few days ago.

Your review is very eloquent and touches on the essentials with a mature understanding of the issues. Your reference to Vatican II is astute and something I missed in my review at WitD. Excellent work.

On whether the homilies are too secular for the period, my own inclination is to accept their veracity. We are not privy to the Gospel readings, so we can't question the adequacy of the springboard, but my experience in the early 60s, particularly with the homilies a liberal Dutch monsignor, would support the view that Father Flynn's sermons are believable.

Sam Juliano said...

Tony, I had not forgotten either, Alexander's mentioning of vatican to as an excellent historical context to his review, which I just read again, even though I commented on it after it posted. Amazing stuff!

Alexander Coleman said...

Frederick and Tony, thank you both very much for the comments and kind words. Frederick, thank you for returning to Coleman's Corner with a new comment; it's always wonderful to hear from you. (The same goes for Tony, of course!)

Frederick, yes, I agree--along with so many others--that it is the acting that ultimately distinguishes the film.

Tony, well, I am ill-equipped to argue with your real experience. It still surprises me, but your personal experience does show that such homilies could indeed be given at the time in which the film is set.

Thank you, again. I believe Shanley chose the right year (1964) for his story to take place, due to Vatican II and the other historical elements, such as the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, which enriched the drama.

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow, Sam, you snuck in there! Haha. Thank you very, very much, my friend.

Daniel Getahun said...

"Marinated in minimalism". What a beautiful, beautiful play on words!

Considering your knowledge of Catholicism, I also find your observation about the homilies interesting. They were much less scriptural than I expected, but I'll take Tony's word for it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, thank you very much for the kind words, Daniel.

Laura said...

I just saw this one. The acting is stellar but some of the director's choices were suspect. But I do think it's a mostly good movie. Terrific and very informative review here.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the kind thoughts, Laura.

Sam Juliano said...

And weeks later this magnificent and exhaustive piece of authoritative and sensory writing remains the best on this film on the net bar none. Makes me want to watch this again soon.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Sam.

Anonymous said...

Your review brought back the smell
of the twentyfive cent candles,
stuffiness of the confessional,and fear of the priests inquiries into
sexual preferences. Facing the
sinister Sister brought guilt,all

Alfred said...

It cannot have effect in reality, that is what I think.

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed reading most of your essays and wish to thank you for the impressive panoply of exquisite insights into films I admire very much.

However, and with all due respect, may I suggest you peruse the following when you have the time:

"Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective
of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly
Princeton University"

Best Regards from a recovering sesquipedalian.