Saturday, July 11, 2009

Brilliant, Without a Doubt

On Tuesday, I went to McDonalds to rent a Redbox DVD because I was in the mood to watch Frost/Nixon and didn't want to wait several days for Netflix, especially when I don't have a single DVD ready to be mailed back yet. Redbox didn't have any copies available, so I looked through the selections and wasn't in the mood for anything else, until I saw Doubt and remembered that I had wanted to see that since it was released late last year. With Anderson Cooper on CNN recapping the Michael Jackson Memorial service, I decided to stay and watch the service highlights and returned home when Larry King came on. He was devoting his show to Michael Jackson, but I wanted to see the film I had selected.

I didn't realize until later how uncanny it was that I had decided to watch a film like Doubt on the day of Michael Jackson's Memorial service. The film is about an overzealous nun who suspects the priest might have acted inappropriately with one of the students. The film is based on a stage play that was performed on Broadway in 2004, if I'm not mistaken. The title of the play is Doubt: A Parable. The movie version drops the "Parable" part. The play had a cast of four, but the movie shows actual students and other teachers at St. Nicholas' school.

The film is set in 1964. Philip Seymour Hoffman is outstanding as the priest. He gives two really awesome sermons, which are definitely unforgettable with a take home lesson worth taking to heart. He sees promise in the kind of changes Vatican II proposed...a kind of loosening up of church to appeal to more people. He criticizes the principal of the school, played wonderfully by the always great Meryl Streep (I'm now convinced that she's the best actress of her generation). He believes the nuns are far too strict and punitive, scaring the students into a kind of authoritarian fear of behaving normally. Streep plays her role like a true school marm, always quick to pass judgment and hand out punishments. In a lot of ways, her character reminds me of my school marmish co-worker. I've been wondering when I would find a right character comparison to make with this difficult co-worker, and now I've found it. Though its not a 100% fit between the two, the excessive judgments and know-it-all attitudes are there.

The two other main characters include Amy Adams playing a young nun who has her suspicions about the priest and reports her impressions to the principal. Viola Davis plays the mother of the boy in question, the minority student in an Irish and Italian Catholic school. Those two ethnic groups tend to be the most hardcore Catholics you can think of. The priest takes a special interest in the boy, for sure, as a means to protect him from the possible hazing of others.

What I love about this film is how ambiguous it is. Did he or didn't he? Its the question you keep asking yourself as you watch the drama unfold. I could see both his points and the accusations by the principal. Its truly a tough bind to be in, especially for a school administrator. She wants to protect her student from a possible pedophile priest, but at the same time, are the snap judgments about him a reflection of a personal (non-related) dislike? Making a false accusation against someone is one of the worst things you can do to a person. Once you destroy another's reputation, it truly is hard to restore innocence. People will always have the question in their mind. This is so true, especially regarding Michael Jackson. We will never know for sure if he was a victim of an extortion through false allegations, or did he truly prey on children because of his own sexual dysfunctions?

As I watched Doubt, I was impressed by the back and forth drama as you learn more and more about the situation that is central to the film's plot. The acting is top-notch and now I understand why Viola Davis' small part was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She really packed a big punch in her short performance. The piece of information her character gives truly throws you for a loop as you have to rethink the situation in a new light. By the time the film resolves itself, the ending was amazing and perfect. Simply put, this film is without a doubt brilliant and thought provoking.

The playwright who also wrote the screenplay and directed the film said in an interview that he wanted to write a play about doubt. The idea came after his initially vague idea of writing about that topic. Because he called his play "a parable", I wonder if this was somehow inspired by President Bush. The point of the play and movie is that sometimes certainty is not a good thing. Doubts are okay, too. Certainty can led us into making decisions that harm other people's lives. The more I think about it, the more it does seem to be a subtle dig at Bush's well-known "certainty" (Bush thought he made decisions based on his gut instinct and seems to be very uncomfortable with doubt, nuance, or complexity).

This is film is definitely worth seeing as well as discussing afterwards. To reveal anymore of the film is to give away its power to make an impression on you. Religious people, especially, need to see this film. There is way too much "certainty" in religion, especially in regards to unproven myths and claims. People who want a cut-and-dried movie will probably not like this one because of the inconclusive conclusion. But that's what gives this film its power.

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