Doubt (PG-13) ***

 

A suberb cast will keep you guessing.

Doubt
Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays Father Flynn, right, and Meryl Streep portrays Sister Aloysius in a scene from "Doubt.". Photo: AP/Miramax Film Corp, Andrew Schwartz.
 

Connie Ogle, miami Herald

Doubt may have won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama, but the best reason to adapt the play for the screen isn't its considerable literary merit but its meaty roles and compelling subject matter -- the confusion of troubled faith, the nature of moral obligation, the power of the Catholic Church. It's a perfect vehicle for the Oscar-minded.

Adapted and directed by playwright John Patrick Shanley, Doubt is not exactly a tour de force, but the film succeeds on the wattage of its stars, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a nun and priest at odds over an unspeakable suspicion.

Shanley has effectively expanded his four-character drama to include parishioners, other nuns and the student body at a Catholic school in 1964, an era when women still wore hats to Mass, the Holy Ghost had not yet been replaced by the Holy Spirit, and kind, enthusiastic young nuns such as Sister James (Amy Adams) invoked the high-minded lessons of FDR to her class of eighth graders. Unfortunately the kids of St. Nicholas clearly have something to fear besides fear itself: Sister Aloysius (Streep), the sort of terrifying authority figure that, if you believe every lapsed Catholic who wrote a book about his childhood, sent a generation racing into therapy.

Sister Aloysius is a keen disciplinarian and fierce preserver of the status quo. She despises ball point pens -- which make students ''write like monkeys,'' she growls -- and shudders to imagine the inclusion of the heretical song Frosty the Snowman in the school's Christmas play. She doesn't quite approve of the more modern Father Flynn (Hoffman), who preaches sermons on shockingly secular topics (example: ``What do you do when you're not sure?'').

So when Sister James witnesses a strange incident involving the good father and the school's first black student and reports it to her superior, Sister Aloysius grabs the whisper of possibility with feverish intensity. The crux of the film boils down to this: Has Father Flynn taken liberties with young Ronald Miller? Or is Sister Aloysius viciously acting on her disapproval by using the most convenient means?

Doubt, which deftly reveals the ugly side of a patriarchy that allows men a freedom its female servants can never achieve, boils down to this mystery. But on a deeper level it's concerned with the nature of faith. Streep, as pale and severe as she was golden and glowing in the summer's buoyant if goofy Mamma Mia!, carries herself like an avenging angel, and as Hoffman's eyes slide away from her accusations you wonder . . . did he? But the screenplay and these fine actors keep the audience guessing, as uncertain about the outcome as these flawed people are of their committed course.

Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

Director/screenwriter: John Patrick Shanley

Producer: Scott Rudin

A Miramax release. Running time: 104 minutes. Thematic material. In Miami-Dade: South Beach.

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