Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Doubt

The setting of Doubt is 1964, but the drab colors make it feel about a hundred years older. Or maybe anything set in a rigid Catholic school run by nuns seems a hundred years older than it actually is.

Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the terror inducing principal of a conservative Catholic school in New York, a cynical bitch who sparks fear in the hearts of her students, and frowns even at the idea of writing with a ballpoint pen. I can hardly understand what makes fountain pens so virtuous myself, and I suppose that's says something about her vast disconnect from actual society.

She's a sharp contrast against Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a good natured priest who doesn't care nearly as much for such frivolous protocol-- he smokes, plays basketball, tells jokes at the dinner table, and makes Sister Aloysius' blood boil with the suggestion of including a secular song at the next school Christmas pageant. Oh Frosty the Snowman, you pagan nymph!

Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn's personalities come into direct contact when she suspects him of molesting a young boy, the school's first black student. He has a perfectly believable explanation, but she is relentless in pursuing her hunch-- all because he called on the boy to the rectory during class one day. With hardly a shred of evidence, and lacking even the support of they boy's mother, she sets out to destroy Father Flynn's reputation, or at least his career at the school.

Doubt got five Oscar nominations, four of them for acting, which has to be some kind of record. Aside from the two leads, also nominated is Amy Adams, who plays a young a naive teacher caught in the middle of the conflict, and Viola Davis, the black boy's mother who actually has just one long scene with dialogue. All these performances keep the the movie riveting, even at times when the plot wears thin (the climactic confrontation between Aloysius and Flynn is a heated argument that goes back and forth without really going anywhere).

The movie walks a fine tightrope, giving you all the reason to believe that Father Flynn is innocent, but planting just enough seeds of doubt to consider the possibility that he's not. Just when you think you're sure of the emptiness of the accusations against him, he give the kid a hug that last a second too long, or lets out a hint of telling defensiveness in his tone.

I've fluctuated from one side to another but mostly chose to believe in his innocence-- perhaps a lot of that comes from wanting to deny victory to Meryl Streep's character, who is simply an unbelievable tremendous bitch. The ending is very ambiguous, leaving me feeling very ambiguous. Given the title of the movie, that very likely was the point. Good job.

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