Sunday, April 19, 2009
After watching Doubt I felt compelled to go online and see what other people had to say about it, even though that meant a trip to that noted wasteland of intelligent thought, the imdb comment boards. Doubt is a film that simply requires a conversation, and it's been a long time since I saw a movie that inspired as many questions and as much, well, 'doubt' about the outcome.
Doubt's set-up is a perfectly executed dramatization of the concept of uncertainty. The film does nothing in it's 104 minutes to settle the issue of whether or not Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) did anything inappropriate with the only black student in his parish's grammar school.
We all have different ways of interpreting information and coming to our own opinions. Some people rely on instinct and what they feel is their innate ability to understand people. Others rely on symbols and superstition, which the more organized among us get to call religious faith. Some people seek an understandable truth, and will except whatever solution is offered when no real truth can be found.
All of these people are in Doubt, in the guise of Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius and Amy Adams' Sister James. But they are also in the audience. After watching Doubt you will have an opinion on the issue at hand, but that opinion will say more about you than it will over the true guilt or innocence of Father Flynn. This is neither a good nor a bad thing. Writer and Director John Patrick Shanley is showing us that as human beings we have a need to make decisions, even when we can not be certain that our choice is the right one. Even if you can admit that you don't know (which, if you read the imdb comments, seems like a small likelihood) you'll be inclined to one side or the other.
Apparently Shanley did decide whether or not Father Flynn is guilty, but the only people he has ever told are Philip Seymour Hoffman and the guy who played the part on Broadway. This may be infuriating, but it is understandable. If the truth of the matter were revealed it would change the meaning of the film from a brilliant exploration of our attempts to understand the world around us into a 'told you so' game where one group of people could laugh at the foolishness of the other, even though it was just as likely that they themselves would be wrong.
Aside from the philosophy, Doubt does a good job evoking a bygone era of Catholic education, in the days when the Church was grappling with a changing world and wondering whether to adapt to it or insist that the world accept its terms. The acting, much lauded at the Academy Awards, is fantastic, and all four principals deserved their nominations. Viola Davis plays the boy's mother, and manages to give her character's difficult life a full showing in just one unforgettable scene.
Doubt is a smart film that will leave you thinking, and for that it gets 8.8 out of 10. I'd recommend watching it with a group of people you'd like to have a discussion with.