Sunday, February 08, 2009

Doubt (2008)

Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008)

While film and theater bear similarities to the point that theater directors often cross-over to film and vice versa, there is a distinction that separates the two art forms apart. Film is a recorded medium, where a single performance is eternalized. Theater, on the other hand, is organic, where each individual performance has certain nuances that differentiate itself from previous or future ones. That said, adapting a stage play into a film involves something more than recording a performance. For the film to truly stand on its own, the director must infuse the material a personality that will make it distinct and memorable, enough for it to be immortalized not only in form but in spirit. Take for example Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), the prolific director's take on Stephen Sondheim's musical of the same title, about the legendary vengeful barber who murders his clients and stuffs them in into his meat pies. Burton remains faithful to the material but infuses it with a visual style, a sense of comedic darkness that is distinctly his own. In turn, he creates one of the most memorable stage-to-film adaptations in recent years.

John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt: A Parable is an electrifying examination on how we live in a gray world that morality and the institutions that espouse it insist on classifying as either black or white. The play centers on Sister Aloysius, the strict and stern principal of a Bronx school, who headstrongly launches an investigation against Father Flynn, the amiable parish priest, when Sister James, an impressionable young nun, finds Donald Miller, the school's first Black student, distraught after a private session with the priest. The play does away with revelations, keeping the narrative within a certain level of very uncomfortable uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that fuels the play's questions, and these questions are just left unanswered, ultimately giving birth to further queries on the repercussions of the fallibility of supposedly ironclad principles such as religion and justice.

Shanley's film adaptation of his own play, I suspect, barely differs from the stage version. Doubt is embellished by Roger Deakins' reliable cinematography and Howard Shore's cleverly spare musical score. However, underneath the cinematic trappings that Shanley has diligently put together, Doubt runs like a theater piece, stubbornly mechanical as to how the story unfolds, with conversations that have a tendency to overflow with literary self-importance. Symbolisms, some obvious and some archaic, abound. However, Doubt feels to be as potent in its insistence on denting humanity's reliance on the questionable certainty of morality with a tool that seems as natural as the world itself: doubt. The only problem with Doubt is that it is overly reliant on its source material, down to the overly theatrical elements (which is undoubtedly the result of having the same person adapt and direct his own play; we never really get to see a valid re-imagining of the material), to the point that it feels absolutely inert: an overbearing and at times, rambling piece whose only real value as a film is that it made the source material widely available, and nothing more.

Thus, the burden of making Doubt an effective theater-to-film adaptation belongs largely to the ensemble. Amy Adams, who plays Sister James, personifies naiveté very well (as we've also seen in her roles in Phil Morrison's Junebug (2005) and Kevin Lima's Enchanted (2007)). It is the way that she commands this facile innocence into the realm of distrust and suspicion that is quietly riveting. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Father Flynn, adeptly crafts a character that is the center of the film's persisting ambiguity, most of the time, convincingly sociable and intelligent, delivering rousing sermons in the pulpit that navigates the Catholic Church's eventual liberation from its dogmatism, and sometimes, palpably predatory. Viola Davis, who powerfully plays Donald's working-class mother in an extended scene with Sister Aloysius, has the duty of further deepening the dilemma, infusing Shanley's discussions on the blurry spectrum between good and evil with the expansive reach of real world poverty. Her surprising reaction to Sister Aloysius' affronts introduces the malady of social inequity to the picture: if Father Flynn is indeed guilty as Sister Aloysius claims, is his actions, considering that it is Donald's only hope in a world that has decidedly existed against his race and gender, evil?

Of course, the picture really belongs to Meryl Streep, who graduates Sister Aloysius as a caricature of authoritarian pompousness into a more understandable monster of a woman: a wasted figure that retreats to religion in the midst of tragedy (which also explains why it is so easy for her to give it up). Her motivations for destroying Father Flynn are unclear: is it really in the interest of justice? to protect Donald Miller from the abusive priest? to quietly assert the strength that the Catholic Church, through its dogmatic insistence that only males can be priests and nuns are answerable to priests, has deprived her? Despite this ambiguity in her character, Streep plays Sister Aloysius with methodical coldness, but with an allowance to show cracks so that little bits of her shrouded humanity can be observed. Doubt, as what I think is only a recorded version of the play, a mere product of modern convenience, belongs largely to the ensemble, which, through the individual cast members' inspired performances, has elevated the film from a mere a typical adaptation to something more.


jayclops said...

Don't you find the metaphors plenty and distracting? Well I guess not entirely but somehow. Hands down, one of the best acted films this year. I think the real star though is Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller.

Oggs Cruz said...

Oh, I do... the metaphors would've worked on stage, but in a film, it didn't.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the stageplay?

Oggs Cruz said...

Yes, a few years back when it was staged in Manila.

Anonymous said...

If I recall, Shanley's film directorial debut Joe Versus The Volcano was also heavy on the visual metaphors.