Internal Inquisition

Doubt wags the finger of moral relativism

Back in the early 1980s, a prominent professor I knew was accused of sexually harassing a colleague. This man was a compulsive flirt who couldn't get within feet of a woman without coming on to her, so it wasn't altogether a surprise. But long before an internal inquiry cleared him of all charges — and unearthed his mentally unstable accuser's impressive history of workplace mayhem — many in the powerful local feminist community had written him off as guilty by virtue of sleazy character. The fallout from this case, measured in reckless disregard for due process and subsequent private misery all around, made a deep impression on me. So I came with up-front sympathy to John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, the film adaptation of his award-winning play about an old-school Catholic nun who goes after a priest she suspects of sexual abuse.

In a hyper-reactive news culture where speed of coverage is valued over the search for evidence, any movie that questions public rushes to judgment wins points going in. But Doubt is only marginally, and tendentiously, about moral uncertainty. It's more about the sins of a nosy old biddy who pulls out the stops when going through the official channels of a male-dominated Catholic Church would get her nowhere. With its bristling topicality, ritzy cast, and the added bonus of Roger Deakins' gracefully bleak cinematography, Doubt is being squired as prime Oscar bait. But in Shanley's hands, it only looks deep.

Where the complication of received ideas might roam free, callow provocation rules, ushered in periodically by waves of premonitory weather. Just for starters, a sleeting rain coats the claustrophobic Bronx parochial school where timid young Sister James (Amy Adams) reports her misgivings to the school principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Sister James is unnerved by what looks like unusually close contact between the school's well-liked priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and its first black pupil (Joseph Foster). A twitchy termagant swathed in a fearsome bonnet and black taffeta, Sister Aloysius looks like something out of Chicken Run. The older nun has been biding her time for a piece of the father — and before you can say "independent inquiry," off she bustles in paranoid overdrive to grind into gear the machinery of blind justice.

Meryl Streep searches for truth under her habit.
Meryl Streep searches for truth under her habit.

Details

DoubtWritten and directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his play. Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis.

Written in 2005 at the height of the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandals, the play is set in the mid-1960s, with Vatican II and the counterculture poised to liberalize what the playwright plainly regards as a joylessly authoritarian establishment. The elephant in the room is several decades in between of rampant sexual abuse by a celibate priesthood. The fascinating question buried deep under the clever blather of Doubt is whether it was old-school rigidity that upheld enforced celibacy or the new laxity that allowed this tragedy to unfold. Father Flynn is a jolly, free-spirited fellow who can't rustle his cassock without being cued in by winds of progressive change. But he is seen furtively stuffing a boy's undershirt into a locker, while Sister Aloysius' rabid digging turns up a question in the father's past.

The question is reasonable cause for further research. For Shanley, though, the rather salient question remains whether the good sister has the right to investigate his behavior at all. Judging from the number of times the camera wanders up to holy ceilings, perhaps only the Almighty can say for sure. Back on Earth and staking his claim for keeping an open mind, Shanley pushes moral relativism as far as it will go. And that's all the way to preposterous, via obnoxious in a key scene between Sister Aloysius and the black boy's mother that's meant to make us go "Aaaah," but made me go "What?!!"

If Doubt has a point to make about not rushing to judgment, it's overwhelmed by the force of Shanley's profound ambivalence toward women. True, he throws in a biographical tidbit or two to reassure us that Sister Aloysius is not just a man-hating, dried-up old cartoon virgin. But she sure behaves like one, and for that, she must be punished with a final meteorological flourish, in which the anguished old nun sits surrounded by snow and ice. It's telling that the movie is dedicated to the real-life Sister James, Shanley's history teacher. But it's history that lets Shanley down: Inadvertently, Doubt shows us that there are limits to an open mind. Knowing what we know now, I wish there had been more vigilant old bats around like Sister Aloysius to shield Catholic children from the predators within.

 
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