January 19, 2009

Our Father Who Art in Doubt

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People don’t like to watch movies with me. It’s not because I have bad taste in movies or because I smell really bad. It’s because I ask too many questions. I can’t help it. I just want to know what’s going on, to find the truth, get answers. Therefore, it is a miracle that I liked Doubt, a movie based on the Pulitzer-winning play of the same name, in which no answers are ever provided — not at the beginning, not in the middle, and not even at the end.
What’s the point of a movie that doesn’t give answers? In the end, at least, I like to know who’s good, who’s bad, and who’s just ugly. But Doubt isn’t about finding answers. In fact, it’s about just the opposite. Yup, you guessed it — it’s about having doubt.
In this movie, which got shoved aside amidst the usual holiday rush of blockbusters like Marley and Me (read the book instead) and box office hits like Slumdog Millionaire, Meryl Streep plays a jaded nun who suspects that the priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is sexually abusing boys who attend the church’s school. It’s a sticky situation that Streep’s character, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, has a difficult time handling. Let’s just say Sister Beauvier may have preferred to deal with three ex-lovers showing up unexpectedly for her daughter’s wedding. Maybe she would even sing about it.
At first, Sister Beauvier warns the other nuns, specifically the young and naïve Sister James (Amy Adams), to look out for any suspicious behavior on the part of Father Brendan Flynn. She has no apparent grounds for such suspicions, except that he gave a sermon about the nature of doubt and seems to have an odd obsession with peoples’ hands and fingernails, once inspecting a boy’s hands and telling him to clean them. For some reason, the hand obsession really seems to creep Sister Beauvier out. I actually could not thing of anything that this odd obsession could symbolize, except for the obvious one of Father Flynn being “dirty.” And that’s saying a lot because I’m really good at finding symbolism (what up English majors).
But then it becomes apparent that Father Flynn has taken a special liking to Donald, an altar boy who is having trouble socially with the other boys. He is also the first and only African American boy to attend the school. Sister James is alarmed when Father Flynn calls her class to ask that Donald be excused and sent to meet him in the rectory. When Donald returns to class, he seems distressed and Sister James smells alcohol on his breath. Father Flynn later explains this, saying that he was trying to keep the secret for Donald’s sake that he caught him drinking altar wine.
In the end, Sister James’ suspicions are mostly assuaged, but Sister Beauvier is relentless in her quest to get Father Flynn to step down from his position. She eventually accomplishes this, only to see him given a higher position at another church. During the entire movie, the audience does not suspect that Sister Beauvier has any doubts that Father Flynn has engaged in inappropriate behavior with the boy. However, in the very last scene of the movie, she sits with Sister James on a bench outside the school, the colors in the surrounding schoolyard dismal and subdued as they are in much of the movie, and, crying, admits, “I have such doubts.”
Except for the unclear significance of hands, Doubt is extremely successful at getting its audience to consider new concepts (many that I unfortunately would need a few pages to dive into). Not knowing much about the movie before seeing it, my initial reaction at its conclusion was, “But did he do it????” However, it simply does not matter whether he did it or not, an original and intriguing proposition.
The entire movie does not leave the church (which holds the school and nuns’ quarters), but the film spans barely 104 minutes, so the boredom that you might expect to come never does. Even though she plays basically the same character in every movie, I’m also a huge sucker for Amy Adams. My faith in Meryl is also rejuvenated, as I unsuccessfully already attempted to convey, as the last time I saw her she was dancing and singing around like a lunatic in the entertaining but ridiculous Mamma Mia (not that I didn’t sing right along with her).
There are some movies that are “good,” but blur in with the rest. Doubt, however, will remain standing by itself in my mind, in a separate category all its own. If I haven’t already convinced you to see this movie, I will add that it cost me about 35 dollars since I got a parking ticket on my way out for not parking in the yellow lines. Let’s just say that driving is another thing people don’t love to do with me.
If you thought I wasn’t going to end with a terrible pun, I apologize — I have no doubt that Doubt is worth seeing.