On the Aisle

Doubt is a shaggy-god story. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley from his successful Broadway play, it has all the grace of a high school debate.
Shanley concocts a conflict between a conservative nun Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and a liberal priest Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) that has all the punch of diluted altar wine.
Guess what the fresh and compelling conflict is about?
The existence of God? No.
What is true spirituality? No.
Are the pronouncements of the church flexible? No.
The essence of the conflict is whether or not the priest is a pervert. The basic question of “Doubt” is whether or not Father Flynn is pursuing the only African-American lad (Joseph Foster) in a parochial school in the Bronx. Oh, brave new world!
But even this hoary conflict seems rigged by Shanley. He creates a religious seesaw with which he promotes one character’s point of view, then switches suddenly to the other’s. Up and down. Down and up.
It’s as though Shanley turns on MSNBC and willy-nilly switches to Fox News. This is the playwright’s idea of fair and balanced. Political spin has nothing on Shanley.
The cast is much better than the script. To see Streep and Hoffman go at it is always a pleasure given their acting chops. As always, Streep is formidable, and Hoffman is interestingly humanistic. When Father Flynn asks, “Where is your compassion?” the willful nun answers, “Nowhere you can get at it.” Streep shows her ability to interpret a line and give it tangy potency.
Amy Adams has appeal as a young nun, who naively gives Sister Aloysius her opening to go on attack against Father Flynn. And Viola Davis has an important, emotional scene as the mother of the “targeted” boy.
The cinematography by masterly Roger Deakins creates a palpable atmosphere; he makes light and darkness characters. The direction by Shanley is not equal to the artful cinematography. It has a lot of obviousness, cat and mouse, threatening weather. And he tries to open up his play with uneven results.
At times, Shanley’s dialogue is tone and time-deaf. A conservative nun, such as Sister Aloysius, in 1964 would not use the term “black boy.” She would say “colored.”
The ending is almost laughable given the motivation of one of the characters. Suddenly this character shows a side we’ve never seen before. It’s deus ex malarkey.
May I suggest an alternate ending? At the conclusion, shaken Sister Aloysius sits on a bench in a grotto with a young nun beside her. Suddenly Sister Aloysius lowers her head and utters her final words. Meryl Streep cries, “Mamma Mia!”
But for want of a more harmonious ending, we are stuck with a contrived one. Films about religion often discard authenticity, e.g., the shaved armpits of Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in “The King of Kings.” Drama can be manipulative, but not at the cost of its humanity.
Ultimately, “Doubt” is coy rather than spiritual. It’s like a sermon delivered by a pontificating priest who can’t make up his mind. Shanley, say ten Hail Marys.

“Defiance” runs for 137 minutes, but that doesn’t make it an epic. It just makes it long.
Near the beginning, we are informed on screen that “Defiance” is “a true story.” It may be a true story, but it is not truly told.
In his best work (“Glory,” 1998), director Edward Zwick keeps his Hollywood impulses under control. But usually he tends to like the big effect over the real effect. Also, remember Zwick produced “I Am Sam,” 2001). In” Defiance,” Zwick gives in to the big synthetic effect.
“Defiance” is a story that yearns for authenticity, and it begins and ends with authentic footage (Hitler and the actual Bielski Brothers), but in between a Hollywood sensibility rules. At the climax the cavalry arrives, reminiscent of an old Saturday matinee serial. And the relationships are ponderous.
“Defiance” is the story of three brothers who escape from Nazi occupation into a Belorussian forest during World War II. The brothers have to shepherd multitudes of Jews who are desperately fleeing for their lives and who join them in the forest. They set up a commune, which undergoes severe strife and hardship and the threat of the Nazis. It is a constant struggle.
The fabled Bielski brothers are played by gifted actors Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell. Despite their determined efforts, the actors can’t lift the movie out of its rut. “Defiance” sputters and slogs.

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