October 29, 2008

Virtue and Vice Are Both in ‘Doubt’

By Anthony Breznican

The spiritual world clashes with the modern one, repression with freedom. And Frosty the Snowman is the catalyst.

Early in the drama Doubt, an Oscar hopeful that opens in limited release Dec. 12, two Sisters of Charity (Meryl Streep, Amy Adams) get into a disagreement with the parish priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) overseeing their Bronx parochial school in 1964.

Hoffman's Father Flynn, an innovating force, would like to freshen the Christmas pageant with some secular songs. Streep's Sister Aloysius, a rigid woman, can barely contain her contempt. Meanwhile, Adams' upbeat Sister James is quietly unnerved. "Frosty the Snowman espouses a pagan belief in magic," Sister Aloysius says flatly.

Of course, the disagreement is about more than a song. Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of inappropriate relations with a student and becomes determined to destroy him. But is she mistaking his kind nature for something sinister, and is her vengeance fueled by her fear of change?

These questions, and the verbal tug of war between the two figures, led the Broadway version of Doubt to win a Tony and writer/director John Patrick Shanley a Pulitzer Prize.

"The story is a time machine to take you back to some place that at first may seem exotically different," Shanley says. "That was a time of great certitude, where the certainty began to shake and crack."

He says the story is not as much about church politics, or the abuse scandals, as it is a question about the virtue or vice of doubt.

"As the movie goes on," he says, viewers "have to re-examine initial assumptions over and over again until the very end of the film. Afterward, I hope, they continue to argue and reassess everything they just saw."

Shanley, an Oscar winner for the Moonstruck screenplay, says the play was inspired by his own childhood in the Catholic schools of the Bronx.

He even got his own Sister James, his first-grade teacher, now 70, to advise on the film's authenticity. "She didn't just know what went on among the nuns at that time. ... She knew what went on in that exact church school I went to," he says.

His own knowledge was limited as a boy. He says with a laugh, "Oh, I was thrown out." (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>