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Elizabeth Chatelain, Published January 02 2009

‘Doubt’ illustrates those shades of gray


While traditionally the Catholic clergy are donned in black and white, “Doubt” illustrates how all shades of gray exist in reference to people and their convictions.

Adapted from John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 stage play, “Doubt” uses a sexual abuse accusation within a Catholic school as a means to raise questions of a more metaphysical nature. When published, the play was fittingly renamed “Doubt: A Parable.”

Although the film has been rightfully criticized for less than creative and sometimes unfitting camera work, it redeems itself with engaging dialogue, especially in exchanges between Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). And while Streep’s character borders on caricature, both nun and priest are riddled with contradictions. Between the two is young Sister James (Amy Adams), longing for simplicity.

Father Flynn, supposedly a forward-thinking nonconformist, fits right in with the Catholic clergy’s “old boys club” vividly illustrated in a bloody-steak-and-wine dinner. When entering Sister Aloysius’ office, he immediately sits behind the desk asserting his authority, and later reprimands her for not “going through the right channels” within the church.

Similarly, Sister Aloysius, who at first revolts at the suggestion of using secular music in the Christmas pageant, surprisingly rips off her cross and declares she will be excommunicated before she allows a pedophile to continue at the school.

The film persistently presents the human conflict between good and evil, individuality and interconnectedness. During a private conversation, Father Flynn asks Sister Aloysius if she has ever committed a mortal sin, and she replies in the positive. Does such failure, doubt and hope interlink all humanity? With little evidence and conflicting personal accounts, the audience is never given the clear answer.

Perhaps whomever the individual viewer allies with at the close of the film, whether Sister Aloysius, Father Flynn, or even the angelic Sister James, reveals something about each one of us. As the cast of the play suggested when it was first staged, “the second act happens when the audience leaves.”