Monday, August 24, 2009


I'm unfamiliar with the play upon which the movie Doubt [2008] was based, but I'm not sure it really matters at all. The production is a fairly static drama, without any real action or cinematic qualities. All conversation and gestures.

I'm not sure why, but I thought I was going to dislike this movie. I was not raised in a religious family, and I have precious little patience with dogma and the hokus-pocus of elaborate ceremony. What is it that Frank O'Hara said about the Catholic Church?--"only a very mediocre introduction to cosmic entertainment"? Whatever. 

This story is set in a Catholic middle-school in the Bronx. It was filmed on location, and has all the right gritty dreary feel of the place. A lower-middle-class mostly Irish working family kind of neighborhood. Priests and altar boys, the stereotyped strict Mother Superior principal--it sounds like a cliche situation, and it is.

But that's where the predictable part ends. You might assume--as I did--that Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the Priest Brendan Flynn) was going to dominate this film, since he's the "suspected" child-abuser around whom the action revolves, especially given his credentials. But he's completely overshadowed by Streep (the school principal), Amy Adams (as an idealistic, naive young instructor), and Viola Davis (the mother of a boy suspected of having been seduced by Flynn). The plot comes down to a siege between Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep) and Flynn (Hoffman). 

The "doubt" of the title is our growing suspicion that Sister Aloysius is correct in her belief that Flynn--with a history of repeated short appointments--is a closet child molester. The recent high-profile court cases in New England over the last decade have fueled public interest in this subject-matter. 

But the really great thing about this movie is Streep's classic, mature performance as the frustrated, driven, demonic, frost-bitten old crone. Confined by the nun's habit, the dark hooded bonnet surrounding her face, she manages, just with her expression, her hands and a few sharply controlled bodily gestures, to suggest a full range of passion, frustration, triumph, and grim predatory assault. Her performance here is probably as good as anything from the legitimate stage. I doubt Katherine Hepburn, or Betty Davis, or Ingrid Bergman could have done half as well. Streep has always had a sort of dry Nordic posture, but she's never before had the opportunity (well, maybe The Devil Wears Prada is the exception) to exploit this side of her acting resource.                

Her Sister principal is hard as nails, without a single redeeming molecule of pity or sympathy. Even in the end--having triumphed over Flynn, and sent him packing after he's capitulated to her threats and intimidation, when, in the very end, she pulls a quick little seizure of tearful self-doubt--her self-possession is so impressive that you really don't buy it. It's just a bit of dramatic editorializing meant to soften her monolithic composure.  

Amy Adams is almost as good as the obsequious little Sister James, meekly asserting her virtuous good intentions against the intimidating Streep. 

I was reminded of The Scarlet Letter--the same dark, swirling gossip, the evil angels of righteousness cloaked in authority, filled with creepy sexual denial and loathing. 

I won't give the best part of the plot away, because it's truly a surprise. 

This isn't a great movie, perhaps, but the performances of Streep, Adams and Davis are among the best instances of pure acting of the last 20 years. It's the kind of movie you watch again, just to savor those "moments" when the drama is brought repeatedly to a boil.       


jh said...

ther's no arguing over streeps' acting ability and i am in complete agreement with you on the score of adams and hoffman

the staging and costumes were a bit archaic
no sisters in the 1960's wore the sort of habit the nuns were presented with in the film - those are 19th century
and the vestments and the liturgical settings were quite misguided - perhaps something only clear to catholics who remember those days

there is a subtle critique going on in a truly catholic tug of war of the sexes -- all sublimated into the cloak of celibacy - sort of refreshing when compared with the audacity of sexploitating comign out of hollywood

faith without doubt is no faith at all

the 60s saw some strange developments in catholic circles i was there
i tell people i went almost overnight from reciting the mass in latin as an altarboy to playing hootnanny guitar with nuns who'd taken off their headshawls and were wearing polkadots and short dresses

in the time presented perhaps presented somewhat arbitrarily for a more general affect the liturgy was still pretty formalized however priests were beginning to take some liberties with the gospel message bringing it more down to street level

i too was impressed with streeps' evocation of the complexity of her soul and the soul of the character -- a woman who'd been married then found her way into religious life and service a woman presented in the film as having an emotional power to rule and inevitably to fall into conflict with the offical church practice -- the beginning of the film portrayed her face-soul looming over the playground

in short the characters were displayed as being flawed humans and as a catholic i think that is far more refreshing that depicting them as idealized saints or ridiculously imbued with virtue

there's always a little darkness to contend with - perhaps most notably with actual saints

my sense in the end was that the sister aloysius character struggled with her own desires for intimacy as much as the priest character...and as was somehow very poignantly conveyed in the end perhaps a desire for the priest

that period in question saw a large number of priests and nuns leave religious life for one another

the expriest-exnun marriage story is almost a historical cliche' now

in the end however it seems we are left with
OK the woman is struggling deep in her soul with conflicting desires and values
but the guy (priest) is still a creep being moved around by a creepy hierarchy poised to cause who knows what sort of damage down the road

i suppose the director could not help but feed into contemporary sentiment on the whole catholic scene in america

the implied topic is still a gaping wound in the life of the church --- and it would seem from an entrenched catholic point of view represented artistically quite well but ( and perhaps necessarily) quite superficially

i appreciate your assessment here
meryl streep continues to amaze me

here comes everybody


Curtis Faville said...

"the staging and costumes were a bit archaic
no sisters in the 1960's wore the sort of habit the nuns were presented with in the film - those are 19th century
and the vestments and the liturgical settings were quite misguided"


Actually you'd probably be surprised to know that those uniforms are authentic. According to the "extras" on the CD we watched, the founder of that school (way back in time) had made that tradition, and they only gave up those habits AFTER the time in which the story is set. The playwright, John Patrick Shanley, followed the setting in the Bronx from his childhood very carefully, recreating the place he'd known as a child; this isn't a fictional place, but a real school, the very place it was filmed. I don't know if there was any scandal associated with it, but the setting isn't fictional.

jh said...

just had a little conversation with an elderly monk who grew up in the east and he confirms that the habits were still being worn in the 1960s...sort of surprising to me...we had sisters of the same order in montana and they had completely different garb

c'est la vie religieuse

xileinparadise said...

“Since they can effect nothing of themselves, they do all through the agency of others; and they have become invested with so much power that they can appoint or eject priests at will. . .” John Chrysostom (5th Cent CE). Doubt is almost a perfect illustration of this quote. Women have been excluded from spiritual authority in Christianity since early in the 2nd century. But they have claimed the moral high ground. Streep’s portrayal is familiar, I would say chilling familiar, to anyone who ever attended parochial school. The rustling whisper of their habit as they came up behind you could paralyze you with fear. Of course the priests could walk on water, but the nuns determined how deep, how hot or cold that water was. They are the great moral force in the church, and it was a religious who blew the whistle on the shenanigans that were going on in the Diocese of Santa Rosa not long ago.

As for the garb in the movie, it is actually a modern habit, late 19th century and I believe unique to Elizabeth Seton’s Sisters Of Charity. Most of the habits worn by nuns of my experience (Dominicans, Sisters of the Blessed Heart) date back to at least the previous millennium with their veils, starched head pieces and their pure white bib/breast plates.

I thought it accurate that the asceticism of the sisters is contrasted with the jovial bon vivant-ism of the priests. One of the factors that originally brought women to join the early church was as an escape from their sexual roles in Greco-Roman antiquity. The sanctified austerity appealed to them.

Curtis Faville said...

Dear x-paradise:

Yah, I had that same perception about the asceticism, too. I thought that short scene of the priests--like pigs at the trough--glorying in their food and smoke, jocularly indulging their senses--was a deep resentfulness at their power, contrasted with the haunting silence of the nuns' dinner table ritual. Did women really think they'd have "more power" as nuns than as "civilian" women raising families? I suppose.

The priests were allowed this feast, but the nuns had to be restricted. Female power held in check. There's a lot of that in Catholic orders, too. I knew an x-priest who said that in the jesuit order he belonged to for some time, "liaisons" would occur after dark, sneaking into each others' cells and then sneaking back before morning. Then, everyone guessing who had slept with whom the night before. Like a forbidden game. Part of the vast corruption of the church itself--secrecy and shame, the pleasure of the forbidden, the vanity of total forgiveness.

xileinparadise said...

Early Xtian groups were egalitarian and eschewed worldly pleasures, power and/or sex, for the devotion to community and faith. The problem was monotheism and that the male god would not allow a woman to preach, teach, or be above men. In the non-monotheistic religions, there were male and female gods, and some gnostics even believed in an androgynous deity. A woman prophesying was not seen as a challenge to male power. Women maintain their authority through consensus and extended family/ community while men hold theirs through individuality and hierarchy.

I think that the sisters hold more of a moral authority than one of actual power. They are there to enforce and maintain the integrity of the faith.

Sex without intimacy and respect is a master slave relationship, power and subservience. The kinds of goings-on you were informed about is all about hidden power, who is in and who is out, popularity, and again, hierarchy.

Pat Nolan

jh said...

x in paradise
a pretty flippant historical assessment
you speak as if paul never wrote admonishments to the church in corinth or as if human behavioural fallout somehow strangely emerged in the 20th century
s brief inquiry into medieval culture in europe will indicate every natural human sin we see today...even amongst women
have you read boccacio?

the problem is and always has been about fallen human nature
and the church has usually judged sexaul sin amongst religious as something to be dealt with in much the same way a mother deals with diapers...and generally with quite the same degree of compassion

the problem is the rather freefloating acceptance even in church circles of the humanist critique...and usually without even understanding the origins of the critique in french social philosophy of the 19th century...people tend to think that freudian and jungian and anthropological understandings of human nature are equal or even preferrable to the long tradition in the assess a very complex church history through the lense of 20th century human sciences...the lense is cracked

i've argued more than once that women "built" the church in USA they built schools hospitals orphanges..bishops and priests probably did most of the financial and bureaucratic fanagling...but the women taught wiped noses and asses scrubbed floors cared for the needy etc etc

hierarchy is natural it always happens even in womens' communities and it is not uncommon to see emotional tyranny in those communities

my take on men who've left religious life is they generally are working through their own profound struggles and tend to project their experience back onto the communities they've left

it's a useless exercise to make judgements of a very ocmplicated and many faceted family like the catholic church from the outside
as enjoyable as it might be
one film depicting one moment in time cannot speak for the broader experience in the church nor the historicial and cultural depth that expresses the shared experience

in 1968 i was in 6th grade i recall vividly the nuns appearing that fall with their hair showing and the calves of the legs apparent and a rather interesting array of color in their the next year the headgear was pretty much gone and the next year all the catholic schools in my town closed...due to the exodus of women who ran to the world for freedom

in the film itself i estimate the time was right about this time...and it should perhaps be understood in the light of the second vatican council and the emergence of the church out of a self contained culture and into the mainstream of life

more specifically i always interpret generalized judgments about the church from the point of view of the presenter...humility would suggest that most of the change should be happening in the souls of the faithful ...armchair psychologists sociologists and anthropologists are a dime a dozen and usually worth about that much

if you want a good point of view by which to criticize the church i suggest it be done from the inside
...taking potshots from across the street is just too easy

it's always easy to dramatise scandal and spectacle it's far more difficult to present virtue and the extraordinary good that humble and dedicated servants have accomplished

the churchs' main apostolate over the centuries has been education
these days there seems to be a programmatic miseducation at work
and it cannot help but sound inimical


xileinparadise said...

Curtis, I beg your indulgence in responding to jh in your blogspace. jh, I actually have read Corinthians, and I Timothy as well, both in reference to women’s roles in the early church. And I have enjoyed Boccacio, both as text and as portrayed in Pasolini’s film. By chance, I happened to be reading a very interesting book on the subject of women’s religions in Greco Roman antiquity (Her Share Of The Blessings by Ross Shepard Kraemer). I thought some of what Curtis spoke to in his post tied nicely to what I was reading (and learning). I was hoping that my comments were more “capsule” than “flippant” but admit that I did skip over the vast terrain of human nature and a large swath of church history (which I am somewhat familiar with) to address a contemporary perspective. This is a subject that is similar to Heraclitus’ stream: we’ll never step into it at the same place twice and it can go on, and has gone on, forever. I am mostly in agreement with what you say and apologize if I appear glib on a matter that you obviously have thought on much more deeply and thoroughly than I.

Curtis Faville said...

My point in discussing the movie was to comment on the narrative and acting as instances of aesthetic process and skill. If I hadn't been impressed by Streep and Adams and Davis, I would certainly not have given the film another thought.

As I explained, I am not religious, and wouldn't pretend to be capable of contributing in a meaningful way to church debate.

My observations from "outside" are much in line with society's indignation at the conflicted state of the Catholic Church, and how it sought to ignore some of the consequences of its doctrinal impositions upon its clergy.

This is a movie, which was a play. Its author apparently wanted to present a drama, and drama--as you point out--works better with scandal than good vibes. I'm not in a position to know how "true" the story is, but it does animate its participants' relationships effectively. It made a good dramatic action.

Again, I thought it worth mentioning for the quality of its acting work.