Saturday, February 7, 2009

Doubt: the power of words

It is rare that a playwright also writes the screenplay and directs his own film adaptation. Pulitzer Prize Winner John Patrick Shanley has done just that with Doubt. The movie has received 5 Academy Award nominations including best adapted screenplay. Previous oscar winners, Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn, are nominees. Amy Adams as Sister James must be a real first chance as best supporting actress. Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller’s also puts in a powerful performance to warrant her nomination. Her son Donald (Joseph Foster) is the only black student at the school in those days before desegregation.

Following three years of primary schooling with Catholic nuns and nine years with the Jesuits, I finished secondary school in 1964, the year this drama is set. If Sister Aloysius Beauvier seems out of touch with Second Vatican Council reforms of the time, she was not alone. Recent events have illustrated that only too clearly. Pope Benedict XVI blundered into controversy when he lifted ex-communication from heretical clergy who resisted the changes. He was also obliged to meet with victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests during his visit to the U.S in 2008.

Doubt comes in many forms in this film. When Sister Aloysius Beauvier reveals here inner turmoil at the end, “I have doubts. I have such doubts”, she is not referring to her “certainty” about Father Brendan Flynn’s abuse of children. It’s the worst sin of all: religious despair. For Sister James it’s a loss of innocence, doubt in her fellow religious. Many in the audience will have their doubts about organised religion reinforced.

Both the film’s strengths and its weaknesses stem from its origin as a play. Most of the real action happens off-camera, reinforcing the mystery. The story is confined to the school and its immediate Bronx neighbourhood. The power is in the dialogue, with Sister Aloysius Beauvier as the focal point for most of the fiery exchanges.

Despite her depiction as “the dragon”, Streep’s Sister Aloysius is too soft compared with the ghosts who haunt my educational childhood memories. Hoffman’s nice guy has us wondering throughout the movie why he became a priest. Aloysius asks him the same question for more sinister reasons.

Two famous religious plays were also adapted by their playwrights for the screen. Both have themes similar to Doubt. Arthur Miller’s 1996 screenplay for The Crucible came more than 40 years after its first stage production. It is, of course, about witch hunts, the kind that Sister Aloysius could have led.

A Man for All Seasons, which was adapted in 1966 by Robert Bolt after first being staged in 1960, had an earlier radio version in 1954.

Each of these films, and Doubt, would probably have as powerful an impact in audio version. As Thomas More might have said, the power is in the words.

Everything and nothing is resolved in this story. If death is the wages of sin, then Father Flynn’s temporal fate is very ironic.

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