Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Runtime: 104 min.
Doubt, much like revenge, feels like an irreversible reaction. It can be as powerful a tool of motivation as conviction itself, addressing your every little thought and every little action. And how many times can we be really sure that we’re certain of our ideas? None of us are analytic machines like Sherlock Holmes and we’re prone more to whims than firm reasons. Where I work, there’s this little situation brewing. A friend of mine believes (and doubt is a belief) that one of her colleagues deliberately plans his trips to home so that he is spared some of the responsibilities that pop up on weekends. Her doubt is her conviction and she cites a few occasions as fodder for that doubt, and it doesn’t matter that some of those trips have coincided with unavoidable festive occasions. But then haven’t we all. It is the kind of thing that once seeded doesn’t let go.
And that is what Sister Aloysius (Ms. Streep) installs deep within Sister James (Ms. Adams). A seed of doubt. I will not describe the plot for you, and instead I will choose to describe this scene, and the little moment which follows it. Sister Aloysius is the principal of St. Nicholas school, in 1964 Bronx, and one with a baton. Not literally, but figuratively. The kind of woman down at school for whose kids you and your friends felt sorry about, and made silly prison jokes about their pitiable condition down at home. I’m reminded of one Ms. Kaushal from second grade. I had always had the distinction of being the favorite student of every teacher, but Ms. Kaushal seemed to have an instant dislike for my usual chirpy self. I would talk, and she would do nothing else but to summon me to the front of the class, and ask me to face the wall right next to the blackboard. And I would, for the rest of the period. Probably my system didn’t take this special treatment all that well, and after a few days I started throwing up my breakfast all over the classroom floor. Two days, consecutive. Third day, she calls my name, and I throw up. My brother is called, I am taken back home, my mom comes to school, has a little chat with the principal and other teachers, and I’m never asked to stand adjacent to the blackboard again. Neither do I throw up ever again. And I realize only later how strong a weapon fear really is.
I digress, but only to stir similar memories within you, for we all are bonded by that dread. Sister Aloysius incarnates that dread, and I have no idea where they get them from. It is another incredible chewy performance from Ms. Streep, and as all great chewy performances this works superbly without once distracting us from the character or the narrative. The sisters of the convent are all having their dinner over a rectangular table, and Sister Aloysius heads them. Sister Veronica (Ms. Alice Drummond), an old and withering nun is having trouble finding her fork, and her feeble fingers are feeling for it. Maybe, her eyesight is failing her. Sister Aloysius notices this, and without anybody else noticing old Sister Veronica’s condition, quietly pushes the fork underneath her fingers.
Sister James finds something inedible in her food, and removes it and puts it on her plate. She catches Sister Aloysius’ questioning gaze. Her eyes plead in return, pleading for a moment of compassion. She finds none, and she puts that inedible piece back into her mouth and chews it, humiliated.
Now, Sister rings a little bell to address them all, and dinner is temporarily aborted and forks are rested. Something’s been bothering her, something that Father Flynn chose to speak about in his sermon. Doubt it was, doubt in one’s faith, and how doubt is a powerful bond. Sister Aloysius doubts Father Flynn, for sermons come from somewhere. She asks her fellow sisters to be on alert for reasons even she cannot seem to gather. She asks them to resume dinner, and Sister James looks on puzzled. Father Flynn is a friendly compassionate man, always in a jovial mood with the kids, and this kind of questions regarding his integrity, both spiritual and otherwise astonishes her. Sister James is naïve, and impressionable, and the contagious disease of cynicism has been sown within her. In a film filled with brilliant performances, Ms. Adams’ is the strongest and the most moving. She is innocent, and she is kind. As Father Flynn (Mr. Hoffmann) observes, kindness is her philosophy. She has a smiling face, loves her students and hopes to inspire them, and an authoritarian stand is something she can’t fathom. She does compel herself once later in the film, in a moment of heartbreaking disillusionment, at a student who cannot comprehend this sudden transformation. He looks at her, this little kid, not knowing what wrong he has done, and she understands. She is heartbroken, looking at that little face, and so are we. If Ms. Adams were to win the Academy Award, it is because hers is one of the best performances of the year.
The dinner resumes. An irreversible reaction has been initiated. Sister Aloysius looks at her napkin fluttering. The shit is from below, looking up. She is looking below. The scene cuts to an overhead angle, looking below as a door is opened and Father Flynn walks in. The unsettling calm from the last scene carries over. Father Flynn looks up and the eye on the stained glass is looking at him. His expression seems to be suggesting he’s acknowledging something. Mr. Hoffmann, one of our greatest living actors, creates a character that never resolves anything for us. There’s depth, there’s conviction and there’s great compassion to be found in Father Flynn’s voice, and there’s great wisdom too. And there’s the doubt what Sister James and Sister Aloysius have for him. This is a brilliant set of sequences, and sets thing in motion without even hinting at what the heart of the matter is. And that is all I’ll say about the plot too.
Doubt almost never presents us with an objective point of view of events. Mr. Shanley’s script, adapted from his play of the same name, never passes judgments nor does it hand us incriminating evidence of any kind. The events we’re presented are always from a point of view, and the events always are actions. Let there be no doubt about the actions, the film seems to say, but are we considerate of the intentions, the film seems to ask. Even in a fleeting moment of objectivity, when the film parts ways from its characters’ point of views, and assumes for our sake a vantage point of a bystander, Doubt only seeks to affirm the unreliability of the subjective eyes of Sister James, although her intentions are noble and her heart is full of compassion. She sees Father Flynn hug a child and the seed of cynicism sown by Sister Aloysius has corroded her for life. We are never shown the child’s behavior that has aggravated Sister James’ doubt. Is doubting a God’s man the very beginning to doubting God himself? I wonder, when you start questioning the faith of a man could you stop questioning the faith itself. And is that the crisis of faith?
This is a high-octane, powerful film of confrontation, and each such sequence is written brilliantly. Look how in each scene it starts by framing these characters individually, and than gradually proceeds to including them together. There’re no cutaways, neither the character nor the plot is having it any easy, and there’s no escaping for either the doubter or the doubted. Look how precisely these scenes are filmed. The acting is so good it is awe-inspiring. When the performances tend to be as good as they’re here, it is often criminal to frame them together in a two-shot. Criminal as in being cruel on the audience because it robs them of the pleasure of savoring such performances in their entirety. I’m reminded of that brilliant David Mamet film Oleanna and how I had a bit of trouble choosing between the talker and the listener. Mr. Shanley knows it, and his orchestration of situations is quite generous of these performances, without once slackening on the portrayal of the power-balance. Look how Sister Aloysius behaves during the first meeting between her, Father Flynn and Sister James, which transpires in her office, and how the father sits in the Sister’s own chair behind the desk. Religious institutions have always been male dominated.
Is Doubt an allegory to our times of war, where actions are taken on the basis of whims? Quite probable. As most good films, this is a product of its zeitgeist. But as most great films, this one can be plucked right out and placed in any era and it will have the same impact, and it will raise the same questions. Sister Aloysius, in a rare moment of weakness, admits to something to Sister James in what turns out to be the film’s final word. She is weak only on one other occasion, in the middle of a heated exchange with Father Flynn, and pay close attention to how she holds the cross on both the occasions and what she’s saying. And remember what Father Flynn’s sermons about in the film’s opening moments. A doubt is all about falling prey to a moment of weakness.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 11:19 PM