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Doubt (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Run Time 104 minutes

The Catholic Church is deserving of criticism on many points, none more severe than the scandal of priests preying on young boys, and the way Bishops have mishandled it. But the vast majority of priests are good men and their reputations have been scorched by this scandal. This movie seems to me to be just more piling on. If writer-director John Patrick Shanley wants to attack the Church on this point, he should take on the Bishops that covered it up, not cast more aspersions at parish priests.

This was originally a prize-winning play by Shanley. He has translated it to the screen and directed his own screenplay. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is principal of St. Nicholas, a grammar school in The Bronx. She suspects, out of thin air and on skimpy information (actually no information, if you analyze it) provided by Sister James (Amy Adams), that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has an inappropriate relationship with a new student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the only black student in the school.

Shanley is no dummy. He undoubtedly knew that if he wrote something like this attacking the Church, it would almost certainly be produced, since it appeals to the anti-Catholic prejudice of the elite intellectuals. Shanley takes advantage of Patrick Buchanan’s dictum that anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectual.

What is really harmful about this film is that it draws the inescapable conclusion that a grown man can’t be a friend and mentor to a young boy, especially if he’s a Catholic priest, without some ulterior sexual motive, or at least being accused of it. A movie like this makes a well-intentioned man think twice before putting himself in the compromising position of being a mentor to a young boy. But Shanley is clearly not interested in the harm that something like this could cause.

Father Flynn is a priest like no other, clearly out of Shanley’s vivid imagination. Fr. Flynn actually gives wonderful, interesting, short sermons. That’s a fantasy of which Catholics, trapped in their Sunday pews, can only dream.

The acting is exceptional. Even so, Streep, for all her acclaim, shows she can’t shed tears on cue, much like her Oscar®-wining compatriot, Sean Penn, who won for a role in “Mystic River” that had him moaning and groaning without losing a drop of fluid. As far as crying tears on cue, she is out-acted by both Adams and Viola Davis, who plays Donald Miller’s mother. Davis has a short scene near the end of the film, but makes the most of it with an award-deserving performance.

Adams gives another remarkable performance. Her rendering of a young nun on the horns of a dilemma is well worth the price of admission. She is already as bright a star as there is in Hollywood. Hoffman’s performance is nothing short of superb. Except for her inept bawling, Streep gives a good performance as the Principal who acts with unquestioning certitude on no evidence whatsoever.

As reprehensible as the possible ramifications of Shanley’s story is, the moral that it draws, that the end justifies the means is not something that’s taught by the Catholic Church, and it’s certainly contrary to Judeo-Christian morality.

The denouement is absolutely without any rationality, just a stacked deck by the writer. It’s a shame that a film so well acted has such a weak basis.  There are no facts to justify how it ends. Shanley has manipulated the story to end it in a PC way.

This is a long 104 minutes. The first hour is especially slow. It could have been a mildly interesting half hour TV drama, but not a major motion picture. The acting is the only justification for attending, but the story is so ludicrous, defying rational human behavior, that it doesn’t measure up to the wonderful performances.

December 5, 2008