Doubt wags the finger of moral relativism

Dec 31, 2008 at 4:00 am

Back in the early 1980s, when I was a graduate student in Boston, a prominent professor I knew was accused of sexually harassing a female colleague. This man was a compulsive flirt who couldn't get within feet of a woman without coming on to her, so I wasn't altogether surprised that he had come under suspicion. But long before an internal inquiry cleared him of all charges — and unearthed his mentally unstable accuser's impressive history of workplace mayhem — many in the powerful local feminist community had written him off as guilty by virtue of sleazy character. The fallout from this case, measured in reckless disregard for due process and subsequent private misery all around, made a deep impression on me. So I came with up-front sympathy to John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, the film adaptation of his award-winning play about an old-school Catholic nun who goes after a priest she suspects of sexual abuse.

In a hyperreactive news culture increasingly ruled by caffeinated bloggers who prize speed of coverage over the search for evidence, any movie that questions public rushes to judgment wins points going in. But Doubt is only marginally, and tendentiously, about moral uncertainty — it's more about the sins of a nosy old biddy who pulls out the stops when going through the official channels of a male-dominated Catholic Church would get her nowhere. With its bristling topicality, ritzy cast and the added bonus of Roger Deakins' gracefully bleak cinematography, Doubt is being squired around town as prime Oscar bait. But in Shanley's hands, it only looks deep.

Where the complication of received ideas might roam free, callow provocation rules, ushered in periodically by waves of premonitory weather. Just for starters, a sleeting rain coats the claustrophobic Bronx parochial school where timid young Sister James (Amy Adams) — unnerved by what looks like unusually close contact between the school's well-liked priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and its first black pupil (Joseph Foster) — reports her misgivings to the school principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). A twitchy termagant swathed in a fearsome bonnet and black taffeta (she looks like something out of Chicken Run), the older nun has been biding her time — and before you can say, "independent inquiry," off she bustles in paranoid overdrive to grind the machinery of blind justice into gear.

Written in 2005 at the height of the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandals, Shanley's play is set in the mid-1960s, with Vatican II and backwash from the counterculture poised to liberalize what the playwright plainly regards as an authoritarian establishment. The elephant in the room is several decades in between of rampant sexual abuse by a celibate priesthood, and the fascinating question buried deep under the clever blather of Doubt is whether it was old-school rigidity that upheld enforced celibacy or the new laxity that allowed this tragedy to unfold under the noses of higher-ups who didn't want to know that they knew. Father Flynn is a jolly, free-spirited fellow who can't rustle his cassock without being cued in by winds of progressive change. But he is seen furtively stuffing a boy's undershirt into a locker, while Sister Aloysius' rabid digging — however unethically conducted — turns up the interesting news that he has been moved from one parish to another in five years.

I'd say that was reasonable cause for further research. For Shanley, though, the rather salient question of whether Father Flynn has transgressed matters less than whether the good sister has the right to investigate his behavior at all. Judging from the number of times the camera wanders up to holy ceilings, perhaps only the Almighty can say for sure. Back on earth and staking his claim for keeping an open mind, Shanley pushes moral relativism as far as it will go, which is all the way to preposterous via obnoxious in a key scene between Sister Aloysius and the black boy's mother that's meant to make us go, "Aaaah," but made me go, "What?!!"

If Doubt has a point to make about not rushing to judgment, it is overwhelmed by the force of Shanley's profound ambivalence toward women. True, he throws in a biographical tidbit or two to reassure us that Sister Aloysius is not just a man-hating, dried-up old cartoon virgin. But she sure behaves like one, and for that, she must be punished with a final meteorological flourish, in which the anguished old nun sits surrounded by snow and ice. It's telling that the movie is dedicated to the real-life Sister James, Shanley's history teacher. But it's history that lets Shanley down: Inadvertently, Doubt shows us that there are limits to an open mind. Knowing what we know now, I wish there had been more vigilant old bats around like Sister Aloysius to shield Catholic children from the predators within.