Saturday, January 03, 2009

Movie Review: Beyond a Shadow of a 'Doubt'

Couldn't help myself with the pun, there. I just saw the film 'Doubt', written and directed by the playwright, John Patrick Shanley (a good Irish-Catholic boy, no doubt), who won a Pulitzer Prize for his original play of the same name, and starring one of the tightest, most brilliant casts I think I've ever seen on screen: notably, the ever-formidable and ridiculously talented Meryl Streep, and the equally virtuosic chameleon Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, Viola Davis in particular deserves major acknowledgment, as her one speaking scene in the film, opposite Streep, showed how powerful an actor can be even with less than ten minutes on screen. Amy Adams was also terrific as a naive young nun who becomes sort of a human moral scale, weighing the accusations flying between Streep's Sister Aloysius and Hoffman's Father Flynn with a bewilderment that mirrors that of the audience as we grapple with the grave issues presented in the film.

The film can be summarized, or written off, depending on how you see it--the way that another amazing film, 'Brokeback Mountain', could be written off as the 'gay cowboy movie' when it's so much more than that--as the 'Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal movie'. And despite the injustice of that description to the film, I think if that kind of controversial summary makes people come to the theater to watch it, then great. I think every Catholic or recovering Catholic, at minimum, should see this film. I don't want to say too much more because this is the type of film that's best enjoyed through conversation with other viewers, because the director/writer leaves so much up to subjective interpretation. And I like that. He and the actors have set up a world that is totally believable (although H. could barely believe that even during my Catholic school experience in the 1980s I knew nuns like Sister Aloysius and was as terrified of them as the school kids in the film are of Streep's character), and with it, they pull you in irresistibly with universal and immortal themes of faith, redemption, the complexity of human nature, and, yes, doubt.

As a survivor of sexual abuse myself, I appreciated the nuances of morality and the lack of judgment of the characters that permeated the film. It offers a very humanizing portrait of what can be a very polarizing and dehumanizing (for all people involved, from perpetrator to victim) experience.

I will say that the film is far from perfect, with some heavy-handed symbolism getting in the way of even this ultra-ritualistic Catholic School-girl's enjoyment. But all in all, it's a tightly-crafted, important film and seeing it is well worth the price of admission.

If you need more encouraging, a couple reviews that I liked can be found on the Independent Critic web site (this one is written by a sexual abuse survivor, at Pajiba (which wins the award for best self-description of its site: Scathing Reviews for Bitchy People), and the New York Times.

Suffice it to say that beyond a shadow of a doubt (there I go again with the puns!), this is probably the best film I've seen this year. I hope Oscar will too.


Genevieve said...

I totally agree. I loved the film. Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman? Come on!! Both are amazingly brilliant actors that NEVER cease to amaze me. I went with a friend of mine and we both came out of the theatre (after having rented Mamma Mia a few nights before) saying...was that the same woman singing and dancing the other day?

I'm so pleased that good theatre can be translated to film. No frills, no cgi, no spectacular locations. Just the grit. The relationships. The tension. Loved it.

I also loved that it's sort of open ended. I took the ending to mean she had doubts in her faith. Her trust in God. My girlfriend thought she'd had doubts about what she'd done and his innocence. The beauty of it, is that there's room for everyone's interpretation. I believe in a great film everyone walks away with something different. This definitely managed to do that.

Rona Fernandez said...

yeah, streep and hoffman (or 'PSH' as H. and I have started calling him) are frickin' amazing. I also loved that the movie had many ways of being interpreted based on your own experiences, values, POV. another friend told me she HATED the ending because it made her doubt her previous belief that the priest HAD done it. I couldn't help but laugh--isn't that the point of the film? To get us to question our certainty in things we feel must be true? But I guess a lot of people in the US are so used to pat endings that they have a hard time with moral ambiguity, even though life is much more gray than black and white.