Friday, January 2, 2009


I went to this movie with low expectations. Partly it was some vague sense that it was not getting great reviews (I don’t trust reviews, but it’s hard not to be influenced), and the fact that it’s a movie based on a play. (How often does THAT work out?) It was also seeing the previews…Meryl Streep in a nun’s habit? Being an uber-bitch? Come on!

But…it also starred Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and, as I’ve said earlier in this blog…I never miss anything he’s in. So, dear reader, I went.

Well…I was wrong. I really loved this movie. It has the spareness—in a good way—of a well written play. (It’s directed by the playwright, John Patrick Shanley, which might explain the loving translation.) There are no extraneous shots or words. Every scene, every line, every camera shot, is meant to tell you something. (Warning: Do not get the big Coke…bathroom break=missing something.)

And the performances—Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the head nun and principal of St. Nicholas School, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the priest, Father Brendan Flynn, and Amy Adams as Sister James, a young nun and a teacher at the school—are wonderful.

But what I love most is that the story of the movie—Sister Aloysius’s accusations regarding Flynn, and the question of whether he abused a boy—are really just vehicles with which to make you ponder the nature of doubt.

A friend asked me, after the fact, if Hoffman’s character did it. “You can spoil it for me,” she said. I told her the truth, “I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.” That’s just the story. This movie is really about ideas.

The movie begins with a great sermon by Hoffman’s character on doubt. And it’s beautiful. And then the story unfolds, leaving you to chew on your questions—what is doubt? What does it mean to live with it? What are you certain about? What is enough certainty to say no, I’m not in doubt. It’s really stunning. When I left the movie, my brain was percolating away...a feeling I loved.

And there are scenes that keep coming back to me—always a sign of a good movie. The gym scene, in which the kids are learning to dance and Sister James is sitting on a nearby chair, watching, and clapping awkwardly. The scene in which Sister Aloysius and Sister James first confront Hoffman. The scene in which Sister James catchers herself becoming Sister Aloysius—and then apologizes to a student.

Really, it’s a gorgeous movie. Not visually, necessarily. We’re talking a Catholic School in the Bronx circa 1964, autumn, and nuns. But it’s gorgeous, nonetheless.

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