Doubt and Certainty
In the comfortable claustrophobia of the Bronx, 1964, the setting and time of Doubt, no one spoke of pedophile priests, even if the Roman Catholic Church may already have been riddled with them. Directed by John Patrick Shanley from his own play, one of the most provocative recent productions on a Broadway overrun with tourists, Doubt is true to its title. Neither an exercise in moral certainty nor an easy story for armchair ethicists, Doubt (out now on DVD) investigates the blurry line between perception and reality, knowing and unknowing. One of the messages is that other people are often abstractions to us. Their interior lives and motivations are hidden beneath our preconceptions and their own masks.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, with the careful tread of an outwardly comfortable man walking on ice. He is beloved by many of his congregants for bringing spirituality down to earth in inspired homilies. Flynn’s inaugural sermon begins with a question encapsulating the story about to unfold: “What do you do when you’re not sure?” The priest soon gains the enmity of his parish school principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Seen rapping inattentive children before her face is glimpsed, she serves an unforgiving God with rectitude colder than an iron fence in winter.
Sister James (Amy Adams), an innocent idealist teaching at the parish school, thinks she may have seen suspicious behavior between Flynn and the school’s sole black pupil. Aloysius, already predisposed to hating Flynn as a modernizer, seizes the scraps of circumstantial evidence with the barred teeth of a ravenous hound. For his part, the priest strikes notes of wavering authority and unease. The tables keep turning in a power game between Flynn and Aloysius. Perhaps the priest is guilty of something, but not precisely the sin he’s accused of?
Shanley transforms his play into a classic work of cinema with strikingly askew perspectives in the stark setting of the Bronx in winter. Gripping and tense with words carefully chose as well as unspoken, Doubt careens audience sympathy between the protagonists, the children and Sister James, who regrets giving voice to her suspicious thoughts. Certainty surrenders to the uncomfortable realization that much of what we think we know may be only part of the truth.