Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Pop Goes The Culture (Movie Night Part II)

The film "Doubt" was written and directed by its original playwright, John Patrick Shanley. It's heavy on catholic imagery and overtone, and while it is set in 1964, it, for better or worse, could easily -- with few tweaks -- be a story in today's headlines.

The plot focuses on a priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) at a Bronx Catholic school who is accused by the school's iron-fisted, uber-disciplined principal (Meryl Streep) of molesting one of the school's male students. That, essentially, is it; I won't elaborate much because this story plays out both as a drama and a mystery and uncovering either prematurely would ruin the experience, if just a bit. The tension ratchets and soars with the film's two stars (with a surprisingly strong performance from Amy Adams as well). The film comes alive with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, and frankly, both give incredibly vivid, impressive, colorful performances. This is especially interesting given the muted, restrained color palette Shanley uses to frame the story.

The film's themes are, among others, perspective and perception, compassion, relationships and the role of religion and faith in a society where these values are slowly beginning to erode. After President Kennedy's assassination, many people felt lost and isolated -- an early point of the film on several levels -- and that is why the story is as powerful, on several levels, as it was.

It could been another "Class Action (1991)" the awful movie starring Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, about an auto industry cover-up that pits father and daughter on opposite sides of a big-time judicial fight. That movie featured incredibly solid performances from its two stars as well, but the crux and the drama was limp and forgettable (except to those who suffered through it).

Not so in Doubt. This film used symbolism and imagery to make subtle yet lasting points. Essentially, both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep interact with the film's characters -- including one another -- in whispers and shouting and everything in between, and the fact is this film communicates with the viewer in similarly varied tones. Whether the volume is to the top or barely audible, the drama and the competing core values of discipline, compassion and humanity are front and center. I found some of Shanley's symbolic action to be particularly effective and appropriate.

This is not a flowery, happy, warm film. It is as cold and stark as the weather outside the Bronx parish in which the school is located.

However, seeing it, and contemplating its message -- both literally and figuratively -- was rewarding. I suggest viewing it with someone who will enjoy discussing the film after viewing, as I think Shanley's message is secondary to the characters in the story and instead focuses squarely on how these values, especially within the umbrella of organized, strictly-defined religion in particular, can exist in a society like the mid-1960's, a society whose discipline is waning on both personal and institutional levels, in the face of transgression. I think the film's main question is to investigate how we as individuals can balance what's morally right with the human need to share love, compassion and interaction with our fellow man, and still maintain discipline, order and our beliefs.

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