Saturday, January 3, 2009
The winds of change are blowing. In 1964, the Catholic Church was in the final stages of Vatican II. In the words of Pope John XXIII, the windows of the church were opened, letting in some fresh air. It is interesting that the Pope's choice of words were visually incorporated into Doubt...based during the transition of the church under Vatican II.
The concepts explored in Doubt are filled with symbolism and irony, but are much easier to follow than Philip Seymour Hoffman's other recent existential work, Synecdoche, New York, which I felt took the symbolism to the extremes. Doubt provides an interesting period piece on the Catholic Church, focusing on the strained relationship between Father Flynn (Hoffman) and the Principal of his Catholic School, Sister Beauvier (Meryl Streep). In recent years, long-term abuse by prominent members of the Priesthood have plagued the church. Looking at those issues in hindsight provides an interesting framework for an intense look at doubt and certainty.
Doubt begins with a sermon delivered by Father Flynn regarding the redeeming quality of doubt, which he asserts is equal to certainty. An interesting paradox that I'm not certain I would fully agree with, but which provides the foundation for the script. The juxtaposition of doubt and certainty among the characters throughout the script provides an intelligent examination of the issues. Father Flynn comes from the new school, where the church should mirror the community and be a part of the community rather than above it. Sister Beauvier has old school traditions running like ice water through her veins. Her inability to show compassion or question her own ideology becomes one of the primary issues explored in this film.
Father Flynn's penchance for compassionate pastoring is matched by an idealistic young History teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams). Sister James becomes entangled in the battle raging between Sister Beauvier and Father Flynn. Sister James' ability for compassion becomes confused by the facts confronting her regarding Father Flynn and his relationship with the first African American student at the school, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). Father Flynn's explanation to Sister James satisfies her curiosity, but falls short of appeasing Sister Beauvier. The conflict escalates between Father Flynn and Sister Beauvier leading to change. Change that blows in like cold Winter winds. Can certainty be confused with doubt?
One thing is certain about this film. The ending came about quite abruptly. I was a bit dissatisfied with the ending, which I understood and accept as it is written. What may seem like loose ends left hanging are left blowing in the wind to stimulate dialogue. It still did not set my mind at rest, failing to feel I had complete closure on this film. The plot was well constructed, with dialogue that was straight out of Catechism. Sister Beauvier had the steely sharp tongue that has only been matched in recent films by Mark Wahlberg's Dignam character in The Departed. The conflict was well designed with credible dialogue that felt anything but contrived. Because this film does not take a side in the conflict, it was a careful dance of words carefully selected to avoid any concrete judgments. The writing in that sense was among the best I have seen this year. If only the ending had been more satisfying, this would easily have been a five star film.
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