As a close age-mate to this film's writer and director, John Patrick Shanley, with similar background and upbringing, I was mesmerized by this astounding work. Quite clearly the time is 1964 even though it seems earlier. The setting is the Parish School of St Nicholas in the Bronx, New York. I graduated from St. Aloysius School in Caldwell, NJ, two years earlier, and was attending St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, NJ, at the time of the movie.
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I had Dominican sisters, and like Mr. Shanley, I remember fondly the nun I had in kindergarten and the first prayer she taught: “Angel of God, My guardian dear, for whom God's love, commits me her, ever this day, be at my side, to light and guide, and guard. Amen.”
The characters of this would-be Crucible, which will set off wagers about doubt and certainty, each of which is bandied about dexterously in this unsettling story of strong wills, good intentions, and belief, perhaps left their guardian angels in their rooms.
Ms. Streep is, as always, a master of local patois. She grew up in northern New Jersey. Her accent is perfect biddy-Irish from the Bronx, often mistaken by those unfamiliar, as perhaps New England. Her character, Sister Aloysius, is St. Nicholas' principal, and the leader of eight in the convent. She is a steely, no-nonsense nun, as likely to whack you on the back of the head for not paying attention at mass, as sure you were lying about talking in class or not to be fooled about a miniature transistor radio with an ear plug.
These nuns looked like Mother Seton with brimmed bonnets blinding their views to the side. Huge rosaries with over-sized crucifixes adorned their waists. Young Sister James (Amy Adams), barely past postulancy, a pure and gentle soul, is deeply troubled by the role she is forced to play at the behest of Sister Aloysius.
Philip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn reminded me more of Father Joseph Boutin at St. Al's than the popular Joe Beggins or the wily and odd Pastor, Father Joyce, with a full-head of white hair and rambling sermons in a thick Irish brogue. Joe Boutin was a former semi-pro boxer before becoming a priest. These are vivid characters from my youth, and completely positive in all ways.
As the New York Times recounted recently, the current trend is to import priests from Africa, Asia, and India, rather than in the time of the film, when priests from Ireland were commonplace. As Father Flynn advised the boys when asked, “‘What if none of the girls want to dance with you?,’ then perhaps you need to consider the priesthood.”
Few hear the calling these days. The obvious answer seems to elude the male power structure of the church: female clergy? married or non-celibate priests? expanding the role of extraordinary ministers to say Mass and administer Sacraments?
Heresy? Perhaps, but a viable option better than closing parishes for lack of priests. The issue of a celibate priesthood and abuse of power with young, impressionable altar boys ring in like the bells at consecration as a focus of the play and film. Donald Miller (James Foster) arrives late in the film as the altar boy, a chubby eighth grader new to the school and apparently the only “Negro” boy in the school. He compliments Father Flynn on his sermon: “I want to do that,” indicating a budding vocation for the priesthood.
Flynn takes an interest in the boy, and Sister Aloysius becomes aware and suspicious, alerting her fellow sisters and telling them to be on the lookout.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, deft here as the priest, continues his long string of excellent acting.
The Tridentine Mass of those days had full vestments, although someone missed the fact that the Stole was always worn beneath the Chasuble, not over it. Then Mass was in Latin, and some still long for the mysterious incantations.
Hoffman's character's sermon on Doubt honed the hackles of suspicion in the iron-willed Sister Aloysius. “Why would he bring up doubt?” she mused. He urged the need for the Church to change; she preferred to return to certitudes, including the visage of Pius XII in a frame to reflect back on the classroom to give Sister James a rear-view-mirror providing eyes in the back of her head. John XXIII brought fresh air, and I wonder if that was alluded to with Sister Aloysius's office windows mysteriously opened as if by spirits.
Bearing false witness and rumor mongering, of course, occurred not only in the ‘60s. False accusations, or even true ones, can ruin reputations and careers, especially without due process. The black habits of the nuns stir imaginings of witches. Flynn sermonizes about the Irish priest telling the parishioner to rent a feather pillow from the rooftop, and when she returns orders her to collect every feather that has been scattered by the wind.
Sister Aloysius is certain that Flynn has taken indecent liberties with the young Miller. She strolls with his mother in, to me the most poignant scenes of this production. Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis) describes the savage beatings the boy receives from his father. She tearfully confides intimacies about the boy, her hopes, her dreams for him getting through the next six months, and perhaps having a chance at a good high school education and a life beyond St Nicholas. Sister Aloysius, though, was icily intent on gathering information for her indictment of Father Flynn.
Most murmur and shout about the main theme: Did Flynn abuse the adolescent? The possibility fills the current stereotype of priests preying on altar boys. I remember discussing my life as an altar boy, and at an all male prep school in Newark, and then in Catholic colleges and medical school. I said: “What was wrong with us that we were never approached, never seduced?”
Perhaps the simple answers are never simple, and may not be the answer. The issue of certainty and doubt certainly haunt every serious individual, and hopefully, every physician and scientist. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty is often suspended, particularly when the rules of evidence and confronting one's accusers are absent. This work frames these issues masterfully and has been the best of movies released at the end of last year.
There is no doubt you will be impressed with the performances in this fine movie.
© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.