At a recent SAG screening of Doubt, writer/director John Patrick Shanley said the film‚Äîbased on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play‚Äîis about “the pain and experience of being alive, and that you can’t be certain and yet you have to live.” No doubt about it.
The story takes place in 1964 at Catholic school in the Bronx, where a nun grows suspicious that a charismatic priest has developed an inappropriate relationship with a student.
Beyond the plot machinations of his story, Shanley said the setting‚Äîwhich he experienced first-hand during his youth‚Äîwas about a feeling he had, going back to that time, that the world of that Bronx Catholic school was disappearing. “A real impetus for writing the play was to celebrate and mourn‚ÄîI had a moment of beautiful pain about this world,” he said.
Those of you who are unfamiliar with the source material should stop reading here if you want to be completely spoiler-free.
The crux of the film is that Doubt never reveals whether Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn is as guilty as Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius presumes. She’s “certain” that his unconventional bond with a young African American student (Joseph Foster) has crossed the line. The audience may not agree with her methods, but it’s easy for us to draw similar conclusions. Yet Hoffman’s non-traditional man of the cloth may be just that‚Äînon-traditional, but not criminal.
Streep’s performance is tightly wound, making the glimpses into her less-than-certain soul revelatory. The actress‚Äîwho appeared at the SAG screening in New York with Shanley and her co-stars‚Äîwas relaxed in person, slyly noting that she “already knew the answer,” to the film’s central mystery when she began the project.
The film plays on assumptions we make and leads us to question them. It got me thinking about how uncertainty isn’t just part of real life; it can make art more interesting. We really can’t know or understand the whole truth, and when we see that reflected on film it resonates deeply.
Viola Davis‚Äîin a small but impressive turn as the student’s mother, Mrs. Muller‚Äîfurther tests our preconceived beliefs. The actress said one of the biggest challenges in playing the role was remembering the restrictions of the 1960s time period the African American character lived in. Mrs. Muller is a woman who knows something terrible may be happening to her son, but is willing to let it happen if it protects him from threats she perceives as even greater (like his being a scapegoat for Father Flynn’s behavior and suffering the wrath of his own father). Rather than her instinct to play it aggressive, Davis said Shanley advised her to remember the character’s etiquette. She said the approach was difficult, but paid off, especially during a remarkable onscreen confrontation with Streep. “To approach it politely gave it a whole different dimension and humanity,” Davis said.
All of the performers‚Äîincluding Amy Adams as the more optimistic but anxious Sister James‚Äîmanage to keep the real themes just below the surface. That’s challenging in a work that’s brilliantly written, but also teeters near the edge of obviousness. It is in maintaining the doubt‚Äîwhile teasing us with the answer to its central mystery‚Äîthat Doubt has power.
In contrast, the French film I’ve Loved You So Long‚Äîan exquisite character study starring Kristin Scott Thomas‚Äîcedes some of its power by offering up an explanation. In the film, Scott Thomas’s character has recently been released after serving more than a decade in prison for a terrible crime. The film follows her adjustment back into the world, and into the lives of her sister (Elsa Zylberstein) and her family. At first I wanted to know her motives, but through the course of the story the “why” became irrelevant. Getting the answer was like receiving a disappointing gift. It’s still a near-great film, but the irony is that it isn’t what’s missing that keeps it from greatness, it’s what’s provided.
Doubt provides a different kind of gift for viewers. One we must open on our own.